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Stalingrad – Movie Review

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Stalingrad – Movie Review

Rating: B- (Okay)

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It’s a tricky thing to make a war film that doesn’t come across as mere propaganda and Stalingrad does manage to avoid that trap, but there doesn’t appear to be much under the surface. There is an obvious Saving Private Ryan influence, but director Fedor Bondarchuk doesn’t give his film the same level of excitement, character or honour. Even as the stakes keep getting raised, the soldiers never become more than simply archetypes. A subplot detailing a German officer on the other side could have been a compelling narrative of its own, but not enough time is spent with him. There is a great World War II picture hidden within Stalingrad and the large scale of the production is definitely commendable, but this could have used another trip to the editing suite.

There is something about stories set in a mostly single location that lends itself to some great films, especially in the war genre. As a group of Russian soldiers get stuck in a destroyed building in 1942, it becomes a matter of survival and also trying to fight off the opposing army, who have plans of their own. This sort of scenario was accomplished to great effect in Peter Berg’s recent Afghanistan War picture Lone Survivor, but its ideas and characters were better explored and handled in a more naturalistic manner and as such, there was legitimate excitement and horror as they faced the enemy. Bondarchuk’s battle sequences rely heavily on visual tricks, constantly resorting to slow-motion. The first time this effect is used, it’s bothersome. By the third time, it starts to grate on the nerves. It’s one of a small number of editing contributions that leads Stalingrad to have very inconsistent pacing issues. For every exhilarating and tense scene, there’s a dull moment where the film tries to build character.

The troop of Russian soldiers stationed in Stalingrad consists of the expected characters we’ve come to expect from this genre, including the serious leader, the jokester and the silent, compassionate type. The character development among the soldiers is at the most basic level. On the Russian side, the only character to make a memorable impact is Katya, a young woman they encounter in the building. Her persistence is mixed in nicely with her genuine admiration for these soldiers. Mariya Smolnikova brings forth a nicely subtle performance, displaying the appropriate emotions and she seems to have the only character who goes through a real arc. The most interesting subplot in Stalingrad is found behind enemy lines with a German officer falling in love with a Russian girl. This could have been overly melodramatic and inappropriate, but Bondarchuk walks a fine line in portraying this. There is a genuine chemistry between Thomas Kretschmann and Yanina Studilina that helps make the on-screen relationship believable. While Paul Verhoeven tackled this sort of romance with more depth and growth in Black Book, these still provide the best parts in a movie so full of subplots it has to mesh through.

The unnecessary use of 3D only makes the excessive length that much more exhausting and contributes to the general eyesore exhibited from the slow-motion. Scenes like one in which German soldiers burn innocent civilians are already horrifying, but it seems particularly inappropriate when the fire starts shooting out of the screen into the audience. The 3D considerably darkens the image, even making it hard to appreciate the attention to detail in the set decoration. Rather than being immersive, it becomes distracting. A bookend that opens and closes Stalingrad and segues into the film’s narration is particularly gratuitous and doesn’t particularly add to the characters or the story. If there is one element that this film succeeded in emulating Saving Private Ryan, it’s the pointlessness of that movie’s modern-day segments. When we return to present day at the end of the movie, it’s easy to forget that was the same place it started.

Stalingrad certainly has a lot to admire and this is a story that will probably resonate mostly with Russian audiences, but it nonetheless overstays its welcome. An interesting first hour detours into a plodding second half, with only Thomas Kretschmann’s storyline being an interesting tale. It’s strange to say this about a Russian production told from their side’s point-of-view, but it seems like more character development was spent on the German officer’s romance. The craft is definitely on the screen, but easing up on the slow-motion, cutting some scenes here and there and giving more dimension to its leads would have lead to yet another entry into the ranks of great World War II pictures.

Review By: Stefan Ellison


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