Fresh off the heels of the Winter Olympics in Russia comes Stalingrad, which demonstrates that defeating the Nazis in one of the bloodiest battles of World War II is practically equivalent to winning a gold medal in the bobsled. That’s the mentality of this epic about Red Army wartime heroism, which is perhaps most noteworthy as the first Russian film to be shot in the IMAX 3D format and for the box-office records it broke there. It’s visually striking and ambitious in scope but strictly an exercise in style over substance, complete with battle sequences featuring slow-motion bullets and bloodshed more befitting video-game addicts than history buffs.
It takes place in 1942, when Soviet troops are forced to defend the titular city against an invasion by German forces crossing over the Volga River. The bulk of the film focuses on an outmanned but resilient collection of reconnaissance soldiers forced to retreat into a dilapidated apartment building known as Pavlov’s House, where they interact with residents unable to escape. There’s even a romance between a German officer and one of the Russian locals as the casualties mount on both sides.
The same material has been portrayed on screen several times previously, including a 1994 German film of the same name, and in the embellished Jude Law vehicle Enemy at the Gates in 2001. It seems obvious that director Fedor Bondarchuk has plenty of Hollywood influences (think Roland Emmerich, for example) with his use of sweeping camera movements, abundant visual effects, and an overbearing score. The film emphasizes exaggerated depictions of explosions and shootouts at the expense of character development that might have been a more fitting tribute to the soldiers and their sacrifices. It conveys a powerful sense of front-lines bleakness during its quieter moments, yet while the script doesn’t necessarily exploit its true-life subjects, it certainly oversimplifies their accomplishments.
Still, the film is an impressive visual achievement, and moviegoers who are accepting of the melodrama will be rewarded with some taut action set pieces. Yet with its casual disregard for historical integrity, watching Stalingrad is probably not a good way for Western Civ students to cheat on their upcoming test.