The Russian 3-D blockbuster, Stalingrad, which will be released for a week in IMAX theatres, begins not in the midst of the bloody Second World War battle but in Japan in 2011, in the aftermath of the Fukushima earthquake. A Russian team of rescue workers finds a group of German hikers trapped in the basement of a collapsed house and while waiting for heavy equipment to arrive, the German-speaking Russian leader, Gromov (Pytor Fyodorov), who has a peculiar idea of how to raise the kids’ spirits, tells the hikers a story about his five honorary fathers.
In the long flashback that makes up most of the rest of the movie, we travel to the murky Russian winter of 1942 and as the camera pans over the Volga River, the ravaged skyline of Stalingrad appears, seared with flames and billows of black smoke. The scene is the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the bloodiest battles in history, which left hundreds of thousands dead on both sides, before turning the course of the Second World War against Germany.
Director Fyodor Bondarchuk (he made the Afghan drama 9th Company) and script writers Ilya Tilkin and Sergey Snezhkin wisely don’t try to tell all of the Battle of Stalingrad. The film focuses on just a few weeks and one location, a bombed-out apartment building where five Soviet soldiers have sought refuge after breaking through a wall of flames into the German-occupied city. The apartment is the home of the narrator’s future mother, 18-year-old Katya (Maria Smolnikova). Over the course of the film, the resolute Katya becomes a symbol of everything the ragtag soldiers are fighting for – Mother Russia and the youth of tomorrow – bringing out tenderness in the midst of the corpse-filled rubble.
Overall, Stalingrad is a bizarre concoction, part Putin-era patriotic chest-thumping and part creaky war melodrama, all set in a superbly recreated ruined city. Also included are video game-style combat scenes that appear to be inspired by the stuttered action of martial arts films or even zombie movies, when relentless Russian human fireballs throw themselves against the German defenders.
That’s not to say Stalingrad is entirely one-sided. At the German command headquarters, handsome Capt. Peter Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann) is ordered to take over the building where Katya and her soldiers are hunkered down. The German colonel (Heiner Lauterbach) is one of those familiar sputtering war-movie Nazis who always seems to be either eating or grooming himself while screaming abuse at his subordinates.
In contrast, Cpt. Kahn is a handsome, aristocratic figure, who provides food and protection to a young Russian woman named Masha (Yana Studilina) because she resembles his late wife. After raping Masha, he’s remorse and then falls in love with her. But his love and protection earn Masha hatred as a collaborator in a subplot that is the film’s token poke at moral complexity.
You don’t need a history book to know things won’t work out well for Kahn, Masha or for most of the other characters in the death-filled city. The exception, of course, is Katya, who must survive to pass on heroic stories to future generations, including that unfortunate captive audience of German youth in the Japanese basement.
The awkward Japanese bookends to the film seem intended to serve two goals: the first is to demonstrate that modern Russia has overcome its traumas to become a benevolent global citizen. The second goal is a kind of victim boasting: You think you’ve seen catastrophes? Let me tell you about catastrophe.