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Synapse Films // Unrated // December 15, 2015
List Price: $34.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted February 10, 2016 | E-mail the Author

Can one of history's bloodiest battles, not to mention one of the significant turning points of World War II, be neatly summarized in just under three hours? Sebastian Dehnhardt and Jorg Mullner's award-winning Stalingrad (2003) makes a valiant attempt. This German/Russian co-production was created in sync with the infamous event's 60th anniversary, and doubles as a historic joint exploration of both countries' deep film archives. Spearheaded by German journalist and author Dr. Guido Knopp (who also appears in a bonus feature), there's a lot to dig through here and most of the stories and events are shared in an honest, impartial manner. It's a polished and and informative production, pairing vintage 8mm clips with more recent first-hand interviews and dramatic CGI segments that efficiently illustrate battle lines and strategic locales. Documentaries of historical events now approaching 75 years old rarely have this level of detail; without question, the visuals do a fine job of bringing this horrific event back to life.

Originally aired as a three-part production ("The Attack", "The Kessel", and "The Doom", 52 minutes apiece) on German and Russian public TV, Stalingrad was also re-tooled for English-speaking audiences. The bonus here is that roughly 10 minutes of new footage is divided between all three episodes; there's presumably more detail, which is never a bad thing...but it's not clearly identified, so those new to Stalingrad (myself included) may not even notice either way. But this small amount of bonus footage represents a pretty weak trade for everything that's been changed from the original German/Russian version, which was released as a Region 2 DVD years ago without English subtitles.

Which, of course, brings me to the only major problem I had with this cut of Stalingrad: the absolutely awful creative decision to dub every German and Russian voice in English. I counted no more than two separate narrators (one male, one female), and both regularly attempt an overly dramatic voice to add emotional weight to what's being confessed. It's a tactic that might actually work under different circumstances (and to be fair, it becomes almost tolerable after a while)...but English subtitles would've worked so, so much better here. Combine that with the fact that none of these participants are clearly identified by on-screen text---a staple of documentary filmmaking at this point---and you've got three hours of material that has been stripped of a good amount of texture and detail. Stalingrad's "extended cut" feels smooth and homogenized, like a dumbed-down version of an otherwise great production.

So, does one glaring creative misstep make this worth skipping entirely? Of course not. There's a fantastic amount of footage on display (almost as much as the interview clips), and most of it's relatively new to my eyes. The stories are heartfelt and sincere, as difficult to process as they likely were to admit. As a whole, this three episode series hits the mark more often than not, and the strong production values help to hold everything together tightly. What's more is that Synapse's new Blu-ray package aims to overtake the studio's own 2006 DVD edition: everything looks uniformly good here, and the HD-sourced CGI segments almost steal the show instead of sticking out like a sore thumb. While we don't get any new extras, those who don't yet own Stalingrad on disc will get their money's worth.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of Stalingrad looks extremely polished with a few mild reservations along the way. Recent interviews are clean with good image detail, while older 1.33:1 film clips (presented in color and black-and-white) are obviously a little rougher around the edges. Still, the worst offenders are dirt and debris but, for the most part, it's kept to a minimum considering the age and probable degradation of the source material. Unfortunately, this footage is almost universally cropped to fill the 16x9 frame, which means that their native flaws are amplified even further. The sporadic uses of CGI to represent territorial zones, originally produced in HD, also hold up quite well. Digital imperfections were largely absent from start to finish; overall, everything looks quite good and I'd imagine that this represents a substantial upgrade over the already-great DVD edition.

DISCLAIMER: The compressed screen captures on this page are strictly decorative and do not represent the title under review.

The standard DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track is our only choice and serves up the exact level of quality you'd expect from any historical documentary with a decent budget. New interviews sound crisp and clear; even older recordings (usually limited to audio) are of reasonably good quality considering their age. The music is mixed well and, along with a few moments of subtle ambient noise and tasteful additions to silent filmed footage, serves as the strongest example of channel separation. Overall, there's nothing to complain about here, aside from the voice-over dubbing.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

The static interface doesn't take full advantage of Stalingrad's's terrific historical footage, but at least it's easy to navigate and loads quickly. Playback options are present for all three individual chapters or, of course, a handy "Play All" feature. This one-disc release arrives in an intimidating black keepcase and includes no inserts.

Bonus Features

Everything from the 2006 DVD edition; nothing more, nothing less. "Recollections": Deleted Interview Segments (17 minutes) includes more face time with several participants, although a few bits and pieces are recycled; remember, the episodes included here are extended versions. A Video Interview with Dr. Guido Knopp (11 minutes) is up next, in which the good doctor (and historian) briefly speaks about the conflict's 60th anniversary and sheds some additional light not covered during the main feature itself. Finally, "Stalingrad Today: Views of the City of Volgograd" (3 minutes) offers a brief aerial and road-level tour of the city as it appears today; we don't get any "man on the street" interviews, but the distant approach actually works in its favor. Overall, a solid set of extras considering the genre.

Frustratingly, the first two extras are presented in the original German with English subtitles...and if you're not scared of reading, they offer a glimpse of how more effective this series would've been if dubbing were never considered.

Final Thoughts

Stalingrad is a well-produced documentary with good intentions, presenting a decades-old event in something of a new light by changing the perspective. Loaded with fantastic footage and first-hand interviews, as well as an effective and efficient use of CGI, it should definitely appeal to war and history buffs looking for something a little different. My only complaint here---and it's a very big one---is the unfortunate use of English dubbing (doubly bad, as most voices are performed by a single narrator), which makes this otherwise terrific documentary feel almost entirely homogenized. Nonetheless, Synapse's new Blu-ray package one-ups their own 2006 DVD edition; the bonus features are recycled, but the courtesy bump to 1080p and lossless audio is appreciated. Casual fans probably won't upgrade right away (if at all), but those new to Stalingrad should consider this the best version available. Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.
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