We’ve seen so many war movies in America that part of us thinks that war makes sense, particularly World War II. But the Russians know things that we don’t know. They know that even winning a war can be disastrous. World War II cost 400,000 American lives, a big number, but the Soviet Union lost more than 24 million.
Or to put it another way, more than 1 out of every 8 people in the Soviet Union died in World War II.
Such traumas produce a different kind of war movie, and so we get "Stalingrad," a huge hit in Russia and the first Russian film ever made in 3-D Imax. This film constitutes an Imax breakthrough, in that it’s the first to use 3-D Imax for serious artistic ends. It makes the war very close, very big and very disturbing, and though it would be too much to say that "Stalingrad" makes the opening scene of "Saving Private Ryan" look like a trip to Disneyland, the sensory bombardment is of a whole other order.
Early in the film, there’s a massive explosion, and we all know movie explosions — by now they have no effect on us. Oh, but this one does.
This one feels like the theater is going to go next. This is followed by a horrifying battle in which the Soviet Army, literally on fire from spilled fuel, makes an insane charge on a line of German machine guns. It’s a vision of hell — men on fire, vaulting over the front lines and hugging the Germans so that they’ll be set on fire, too.
The Russians, either by experience, temperament or both, have a wider range of emotion with regard to World War II. Because our war films take place within the 40-yard lines, by comparison, "Stalingrad" may be jarring to us. It’s at once more sentimental and more nihilistic than anything we’re used to.
The story itself is rather small-scale. It concerns five Soviet soldiers, who take cover in a building and hold it against a German onslaught in order to prevent the enemy from gaining access to the Volga. These soldiers are colorful and varied.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the lines, there’s a German captain, who seems to be a committed Nazi, and yet has no stomach for German atrocities. He is played by Thomas Kretschmann, who has practically made a career of playing conscience-torn Nazi officers. In fact, this is Kretschmann’s second trip to this particular field of battle. He starred in a German film called "Stalingrad" in 1993.
After a devastating opening, the movie gets sluggish here and there, but it remains interesting throughout, not just culturally, but as a piece of drama. Just don’t expect the filmmaker to hold your hand and tell you everything is going to be all right. It’s not that kind of movie.
By the way, "Stalingrad" director Fedor Bondarchuk is the son of Sergei Bondarchuk, whose Battle of Borodino in "War and Peace" (1967), set during the Napoleonic wars, is still considered one of the greatest battle recreations in cinema history. So Dad would be proud.
In Russian and German, with English subtitles.