Director: Fedor Bondarchuk
Screenplay: Sergey Snezhkin & Ilya Tilkin
Stars: Mariya Smolnikova (Katya), Yanina Studilina (Masha), Pyotr Fyodorov (Kapitan Gromov), Thomas Kretschmann (Kapitan Kan), Sergey Bondarchuk (Sergey Astakhov), Dmitriy Lysenkov (Chvanov), Andrey Smolyakov (Polyakov), Aleksey Barabash (Nikiforov), Oleg Volku (Krasnov), Heiner Lauterbach (Khenze), Polina Raykina (Natashka), Anna von Abler (Nina), Yuriy Nazarov (V roli navodchika), Mariya Sittel (Perevod rechi premer-ministra Yaponii chitaet), Petar Zekavica (Yurgens)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2013
Country: Russia
Stalingrad Blu-ray 3D
StalingradFedor Bondarchuk’s Stalingrad is an ambitious war-torn drama about a small group of Soviet soldiers attempting to hold a strategic multi-story apartment building in the devastated ruins of the great Russian city of Stalingrad, which was the site of a six-month battle between the Russians and the invading Germans that is still considered the bloodiest in human history (1.2 million were killed). During the course of the film, the five men, who all come from different divisions and are initially strangers to each other, become enamored in various ways with a young woman named Katya (Mariya Smolnikova) who lives in the building and has refused to leave it even though everyone else who lived there has either left or been killed (including her mother and her sister). Despite the epic scope of the film’s production design and bombastic special effects (not to mention the decision to shoot the film in IMAX 3D), it is really an intimate portrait of people struggling to retain their humanity during the worst kind of warfare imaginable.

Unfortunately, Stalingrad is marred by a visual design that all too often undermines the intensity and severity of its thematic preoccupations with ravages of war. The production design, which recreates the ruins of Stalingrad with great historical detail, is superb (the apartment building at the center of the film is based on the real-life Pavlov’s House, which played a major role in the battle and has become symbolic of Russian resilience). The grayness of the city’s rubble is broken only by the fierce orange of burning fire, and the sky is constantly raining ash in a way that can only be described as Biblical. However, while the film’s narrative encourages a sense of philosophical reflection about the perils of human nature amid the horrors of war, the film’s video-game-inspired look constantly puts us at a distance by overly aestheticizing the violence with extreme slow motion and Matrix-like bullet time effects. This not a new problem, as the balance between the aesthetics used to represent on-screen violence and the effect it is intended to have on the audience has long been a difficult one to strike for filmmakers (when Sam Peckinpah made The Wild Bunch in 1969, surely one of the most violent films of its era, some critics accused him of rendering the violence “beautiful” when his intention was to drive home its awfulness).

For the past decade and a half, the visual style developed by Steven Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski in Saving Private Ryan (1998) has been the de facto “look” of serious war films, and while Bondarchuk and his cinematographer Maksim Osadchiy adopt some of that visual approach, they seem more compelled by the possibilities of computer-generated “impossible shots,” whether it be following the trajectory of an explosive round launched from a tank or being inside a fiery explosion. The result is a film that often feel hyper-real rather than realistic, a tendency that is only enhanced by the large format and stereoscopy. If Bondarchuk meant to draw us into the horrors of warfare, Stalingrad has to be deemed a failure because it all too often puts us on the outside looking in, marveling at the physics-defying imagery rather than cowering in the face of human bloodshed.

The film’s dramatic moments are infinitely more effective, even though the film is oddly framed as a narrative told by Katya’s grown son, who is a rescue worker trying to calm a group of German students who have been trapped in a collapsed building following an earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The fact that the film begins in present-tense devastation is appropriate, though, given that the story takes place against a backdrop that could be described as apocalyptic, although the exact point of framing the disaster of war within a natural disaster is muddy at best. Stalingrad is a story about desperate people clinging to anything that will remind them of their perilous humanity, which is why the five Soviet soldiers become so protective of Katya—saving her life is the only way to truly save their own. The most memorable of the Soviet soldiers is Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov), whose matinee handsomeness is clouded by his character’s war-hardened nature. Gromov is mirrored in Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann), a Nazi captain who has been charged with taking the building Gromov and the other Soviet soldiers are trying to hold. Kahn is also attempting to maintain his own humanity by forcibly holding a beautiful Russian girl named Masha (Yanina Studilina). He takes out his anger and resentment on her, yet feels compelled to save her at the same time, which makes him both loathsome and oddly sympathetic.

Stalingrad has become the highest grossing Russian film at the Russian box office, which is not surprising given that it merges the technical and aesthetic flourishes of the modern blockbuster with a sense of rewarding historical grandeur (for all the interpersonal complexities, there is never any doubt that the film’s primary message is the resilience and valor of Mother Russia). It is too bad that Bondarchuk, an actor turned director whose father, Sergei Bondarchuk, directed the monumental, Oscar-winning War and Peace (1966), gave in to the idea that more is more, as Stalingrad would have benefitted from a more subdued and realistic visual approach that merges the film’s physical violence with its emotional passion. Instead, the film’s constant need to impress us with its visuals, piling “wow!” on top of “wow!,” undercuts its gravitas, rendering superficial what should be devastating.

Stalingrad Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + Digital HD

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
  • Russian DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • Subtitles English, Spanish, French
  • “The Making of Stalingrad” featurette
  • DistributorSony Pictures Home Entertainment
    Release DateMay 13, 2014

    Stalingrad looks absolutely stunning on Blu-ray. The image is intensely sharp and bursting with a wealth of visual detail, from the mounds of gray ash that cover everything in sight, to the dirt and blood on characters’ worn faces. The hyper-real intensity of the image doesn’t look at all like celluloid, but I don’t think it was supposed to. The predominant color scheme is monochromatic, with dingy grays and browns emphasized amid the ruins of Stalingrad, but when we do get bursts of color (such as when fire is involved), the image is rich and deeply saturated (the sequence in which burning Russian soldiers continue to rush the Nazis is particularly evocative). Much of the film is extremely dark, but the contrast and shadow detail allow the image to remain impressively detailed even in low light. The darkness of the image made me worry for the film’s 3D presentation (which is housed on a second disc from the 2D version), but my fears were largely for naught, as the 3D version does not darken the image appreciably. The stereoscopic effects are largely to give added depth into the screen, rather to have thinks popping out, and the overall experience is quite good. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel surround soundtrack, which is available in either the original Russian/German or in an English dub, is likewise fantastic, with great surround effects and a booming low end to immerse us in the chaos of warfare. Angelo Badalamenti’s heavy orchestral score also sounds fantastic.
    Unfortunately, the supplements are a bit slim, limited to an 11-minute making-of featurette that includes brief interviews with cast and crew (including actors Mariya Smolnikova, Pyotr Fyodorov, and Thomas Kretschmann and director Fedor Bondarchuk) and some intriguing behind-the-scenes footage (I was impressed to see how much of the devastated Stalingrad was built full-scale as a physical set, rather than painted in with computers).

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    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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