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I've looked up the synopses of three features and one TV series called "Stalingrad" made since 1959. All of the German movies are about innocent soldiers questioning Nazi ideology as they fight in vain against the Russian counterattack. The newest film (2013) is Russian, and its synopsis emphasizes the romantic possibilities between two Russian soldiers and two lovely females holding in the ruins of the strategic Russian city. I'm told that there are scores of Soviet-made war combat epics about the land battles in the East, made on a vast scale and never released in the U.S.. The Cold War blackout was such that most of us next-generation '50s kids learned of the massive conflict on the Eastern front when the Brit The World at War series came out in the middle 1970s. Americans in particular don't want to hear that the Soviet Union did most of the dying in the war against Hitler, and that the battles in the East are what broke the back of the Third Reich.
Stalingrad was such an enormous and brutal battle that it's difficult to dramatize. Jean-Jacques Annaud's Enemy at the Gates gave a good idea of the way Russian commanders simply threw hundreds of thousands of men into their offensives, shooting any that didn't advance even when they couldn't arm them all. Events like this are much bigger than a single romance or disillusioned soldier. A truly honest movie about such a battle would be so unpleasant that few audiences would sit through it.
Of the newer Stalingrad movies, Joseph Vilsmaier's 1993 epic Stalingrad has a good reputation. It's not well known here, but halfway alert filmgoers will notice actor Thomas Kretchmann, who we've since seen do fine work in Queen Margot, The Pianist, Downfall, King Kong and the Russian Stalingrad from 2013! The production is big, the battles are exciting, and the "ideological slant" not too much of an intrusion.
German troops resting up on an Italian beach are sent by train deep into Russia, and pitched into the losing battle of Stalingrad, a strategically critical objective in the offensive against the Soviet Union. Untried Lieutenant Hans von Witzland (Thomas Kretschmann) must endure the ribbing of his own soldiers, including the savvy Fritz Reiser (Dominque Horwitz) and the pessimistic Manfred "Rollo" Rohleder (Jochen Nickel). Once on Russian ground, von Witzland discovers that his commanders, who allow soldiers to beat and even shoot civilian prisoners, consider him a 'Russian lover'. Tossed into the fray, von Witzland sees how his commander must ruthlessly 'spend' men to save others. When they're pinned down because a soldier accidentally fired his rifle, the commander allows the man who made the mistake to volunteer for a suicidal attack on a Russian machine gun.
The Germans are desperate because the Russian advance will soon cut them off. Von Witzland speaks out against an unjust killing of civilians, and later forces some medics to attend to a wounded friend. The result is that his patrol is arrested and assigned to murderous anti-mine work in the snow. Again they're brought back to fight, but seeing that the army is in disarray, they fake injuries so as to be evacuated. They slip through the medical screening without getting shot, but miss the last plane west. Still completely AWOL (as is most of the rest of the army) von Witzland and his men refuse to surrender with other soldiers. They get lucky and hole up in a hideaway where an officer has been hoarding food. There they find Russian civilian Irina (Dana Válvrová), who von Witzland tangled with in an earlier battle. He prevents his comrades from gang-raping her, but they can't stay there long. Abandoned by the army, their only hope is to push westward ... and they're now hundreds of miles behind enemy lines, with the snow getting deeper.
Stalingrad delivers most of what one wants in a war movie. It's factually accurate both in its history and in the way the experiences of the soldiers are depicted. We aren't given the big picture, even though the commander spells things out to his troops once in a while, if only to impress on them how desperate their situation is. The commander knows von Witzland's family, which saves him from punishment more than once. On the front line in a losing battle, deep in a country where his side has already killed maybe a MILLION civilians, von Witzland's protests aren't exactly welcome.
The troops are on the offensive in less than half the picture. They blast into a ruined factory, sustain heavy losses and appear to push the Germans back for bit. Staying at the personal level, we see von Witzland's reaction to the way his men do or don't hold up under stress. Expending energy on anybody but immediate comrades is useless. The whole patrol is put on prison duty for objecting to the shooting of a Russian kid they befriended. Later, patrol solidarity breaks down when von Witzland decides to quit with a couple of guys. They run into so much trouble that they come back again. There's really no escape.
Kretschmann is excellent. He's pretty young here, enough to look less experienced than in his later tough guy roles. Top-billed Dominique Horwitz (a man) plays a sensible soldier-pal who just wants to survive. He has little respect for orders, at least not in this no-win-you-die-no-matter-what situation. We especially like Jochen Nickel's Rollo, a big guy with haunted eyes, whose attitude ranges from despair to unhappy determination. Rollo is easily the best soldier among them.
Seeing this post-Cold War movie produced in an again-united Germany makes us American viewers question the image of German soldiers we've seen for the last sixty years. For us in America, it's basically been a progression from brutal thugs (in movies made during the War) to conscience-ridden misunderstood method actors (The Young Lions, et. al.) and finally back to slightly more nuanced professional soldiers. Stalingrad has one decent commander doing his best, but he's not a humanist like Karl Malden's General Bradley in Patton. Another piggish officer sneers at young von von Witzland's ethical sentiments, steals his own men's provisions, and keeps a helpless Russian woman tied to a bed for sex. We see some prisoners executed, and just a few other instances of brutality. But there are no sadistic S.S. officers killing for sport and no wholesale atrocities on view. At the finish young von Witzland is still protecting the Russian civilian girl, and trying to behave in a civil manner. Technically Stalingrad finishes a bit like The Human Condition but without dragging its combatants down to the lowest levels of existence.
Does the film soften German brutalities for the sake of its audience? I've read that the filmmakers tried to purge the film of anything that could put the Nazis in a good light because of the worries about resurgent neo-Nazis in 1992. It's true that swastikas and other fetish items aren't being shoved in our faces, as in other films that send inadvertent wrong messages. We all know that in pictures like Kelly's Heroes the Nazis look pretty cool -- the slick uniforms, the rigid organization, the fancy guns and tanks.
But it's good to see a competent war movie that stays faithful to basic facts. I easily overlook the one or two speeches about 'decency in wartime' that seem so out of place. The scale of the production is pretty big, conveying the scope of the battle by showing a lot of hardware up front. I would guess that the movie is mostly pre-CGI. Parts of it were filmed in Czechoslovakia and Finland, and even some of the Russian armor looks convincing. (photo just above) The snow looks convincingly cold as well... under those conditions I can't see myself holding up for more than a few hours. Joseph Vilsmaier's action scenes are fine -- edited for tension, not escapist thrills. One altogether horrible moment shows a Russian tank overrunning a foxhole with a German hiding below. The tank does a pivoting tractor move over the foxhole, grinding the poor guy like a cigarette butt. Ick --so much for all those movies where soldiers simply wait for a tank to pass harmlessly over.
Arrow Films' Region B Blu-ray of Stalingrad is an excellent encoding of this quality war movie -- it does not look like up-rezzed SD. This is not one of Arrow's special editions so there's no DVD copy, lavish booklet or extras, but the disc does carry a quality making-of documentary. The audio is in stereo, but not 5.1, and the German and Russian language is translated into English in removable subtitles.
Historical action films produced at this scale were once common, but no more. Quality is the operative word here ... genre fans interested in an "A" level war saga won't be disappointed. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Stalingrad Region B Blu-ray rates:
1. A closet pacifist reporting: The movie that I should think best sums up the meaning of war for those not so lucky as to be born on the side of the victors, is still Masaki Kobayashi's emotional ordeal The Human Condition. A more accessible film to disabuse young boys of the notion that war is at all glamorous is still Peter Weir's Gallipoli.
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