Issue 44 (2014)
Fedor Bondarchuk: Stalingrad (2013)
reviewed by Seth Graham © 2014
Everything about this film’s marketing promises an epic: the title, the well-publicized high (for Russian cinema) budget of $30 million, the unprecedented (again, for Russian cinema) use of IMAX-3D technology, and the appeal to the historical memory of the Battle of Stalingrad itself, certainly one of the most epic chapters of twentieth-century Soviet, and indeed world, history. Yet what Bondarchuk’s film actually offers is in many ways the opposite of an epic; for most of its 131 minutes it is a surprisingly intimate film, narrow in scope both spatially and temporally, as concerned (visually and thematically) with personal relationships, private motives, and individual tragedy as with the historical trajectory of a nation and its people. In this regard, it differs both from the tradition of the Soviet war film and such post-Soviet examples of the genre as Nikolai Lebedev’s The Star (Zvezda, 2002) and Bondarchuk’s own Afghan War film, The Ninth Company (9-aia rota, 2005). Iurii Gladil’shchikov (2013) calls Stalingrad a ‘chamber’ (kamernyi) film (an opinion that is strengthened by a scene of actual chamber music), and wonders if that quality is its main strength, its main flaw, or perhaps both.
This is not to say that Stalingradis not a blockbuster. Its visual effects are frequently astonishing, both in the battle sequences (especially an early scene in which attacking Soviet troops not only continue advancing when they are under fire, but when they are literally on fire) and in the long shots of the film’s main setting, a city square instantly recognizable to many with its central feature, the Barmalei Fountain, with its statues of six children playing with a crocodile (based on a 1925 children’s poem by Kornei Chukovskii). In these shots, the 3D is used to maximum effect to give a sense of the literal atmosphere of a battle, swarming with particles of debris and ash (I was reflexively brushing dust off my shoulders for an hour after watching the movie).
The film is loosely based on the true story of Pavlov’s House, a strategically located Stalingrad apartment building on the banks of the Volga that was defended successfully by a small group of Soviet troops in 1942. In this cinematic rendering of the story, the House is personified by its last surviving resident, 19-year-old Katia (Smolnikova), who stubbornly/desperately refuses to leave her home. The voiceover narrator, who is speaking from the perspective of a framing narrative that takes place (yes) in the aftermath of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, informs us that Katia was his mother, and that he had five fathers, all of whom perished.
The five men in question, a unit of reconnaissance soldiers in Stalingrad in the autumn of 1942, is about as diverse as such groups are expected to be in war films. The ranking officer, Captain Gromov (Fedorov), is a hardened ‘professional hero’ whose military career predates the War itself, and who has no familial or emotional ties aside from his comrades in arms, until he meets Katia. He is devoted to the Soviet war effort, but also fiercely enforces the honor code among all soldiers. For example, he berates a sniper for allowing Katia to shoot a German soldier who is fetching water (“not even wild animals kill each other at the watering hole!”). The sniper in question, Chvanov (Lysenkov), is the clown of the group, a village kid whose motivations for fighting are revealed when he defends the shooting of the German by telling the story of the atrocities committed against his family by the Nazis occupying his village (“They shot my 7-year-old brother just because his name was Vladimir Il’ich”). Angel is the self-styled nickname of the oldest of the five, a kindly, religious sergeant named Poliakov (Smoliakov) who acts as a father figure to Katia. The taciturn Sasha Nikiforov (Barabash) is the most ruthless of the men, preferring to kill the enemy with his knife, which stands in contrast to his pre-War identity as a locally famous opera singer (of which we are told, as with the back-stories of all five men, by the voiceover narrator). The quintet is completed by Sergei Astakhov (Bondarchuk Jr), a young artillery officer who must earn Gromov’s respect after having been left alive by the Germans after a failed mission (Gromov calls him by the nickname Sissy [Tiutia] throughout).
The interactions among the “five fathers” (only one of whom, of course, is the narrator’s literal father) with Katia form the central narrative. To Gromov’s dismay, as she gets to know the soldiers, she becomes the symbol of all that they are fighting for (“They’re not fighting for the Motherland or for Stalin,” he tells her, “they’re fighting for you! You can’t kill a Motherland, but they can kill you, and if they do, the guys will fall apart!”). There is an extended, quiet scene of the five men celebrating Katia’s birthday with precious gifts (fragrant soap and a hot bath), cake, and music (Nikiforov sings an aria). The delicate question of how Katia alone among the House’s residents managed to survive while the Germans had occupied it is dealt with only obliquely, and her behavior is clearly contrasted to that of another Russian resident of the square, Masha (Studilina), who is ruined in every sense by her relationship with a German officer.
Stalingrad also differs from other Russian films about the Great Patriotic War (WWII) in its depiction of the Germans. The story of Gromov’s counterpart, Captain Kahn (Kretschmann), Masha’s tormentor and protector, functions as a full-fledged parallel narrative, and he and other Nazi characters are played by well-known German actors and allowed to speak German throughout. While Kahn’s commanding officer, a Nazi colonel straight from central casting, is a more typically un-nuanced, genocidal figure, the Captain himself is quite extensively developed, albeit not uncritically (his complaint to Masha after he rapes her that “I came here a soldier, but you [Russians] turned me into a beast” rings particularly hollow). As Gladil’shchikov (2013) writes, “he’s better than the other Fritzes (Krauts?), but he’s still a Fritz”). In this and other ways, the attempt at a relatively balanced depiction of a battle to the death between a Russian warrior and his German counterpart of the same rank is ultimately overpowered by the expected appeals to domestic viewers’ national pride, sense of moral rectitude, and acknowledgment of the lasting contribution to world peace and international brotherhood made by the victors of Stalingrad. In the closing scene, again set in 2011 Japan, the narrator, a Russian rescue worker, saves a group of five German students trapped under the debris of a collapsed building.
Already the top-grossing domestic film in Russian history, ambitious plans to repeat that success abroad have come up short. Questionnaires filled out after a test-screening in Germany did not bode well: respondents stated that what they liked the best about the film was the 3D technology. The chances of such a film on the US market were never great, and possibly damaged by events in the Crimean Peninsula that coincided with its American premier.
Still, Stalingrad deserves a place in the canon of Soviet and Russian war films by virtue of its savvy understanding of the contemporary Russian film market, as well as its distinctive superimposition of the image of the front with the image of the home front, and its reminder that those two settings were very often indistinguishable during the War.
University College London
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Gladil’shchikov, Iurii (2013), “Fedor Bondarchuk i voina mirov,” Moskovskie novosti, 15 October.
Stalingrad, Russia, 2013
Color, 131 minutes
Languages: Russian, German, and Japanese
Director: Fedor Bondarchuk
Screenplay: Il’ia Til’kin, Sergei Snezhkin
Cinematography: Maksim Osadchii
Music: Angelo Badalamenti
Cast: Maria Smolnikova, Petr Fedorov, Dmitrii Lysenkov, Aleksei Barabash, Andrei Smoliakov, Sergei Bondarchuk Jr., Ianina Studilina, Thomas Kretschmann, Heiner Lauterbach
Producers: Aleksandr Rodnianskii, Dmitrii Rudovskii, Sergei Melkumov, Natal’ia Gorina, Steve Schklair (3D Producer)
Production: Art Pictures Group, Non-Stop Production
Fedor Bondarchuk: Stalingrad (2013)
reviewed by Seth Graham © 2014