Perhaps there is no way to make a film about one of the bloodiest battles in human history that is both deep and beautiful. So when “Stalingrad” director Fedor Bondarchuk was forced to choose, he decided to make his mark on cinematic history, with the first Russian movie ever to be shot in 3-D.
The move paid off; “Stalingrad” was Russia’s top grossing film in 2013. The film, a tapestry of falling ash and searing flame, charts the battle that reversed the momentum of World War II, when Russia took back Stalingrad in late 1942 and early 1943. Bondarchuk cleverly reduces the largeness of those five months of combat to the space of a single square at the foot of the Volga River, where civilians are caught in the crossfire between Russian soldiers and Nazi officers. He then inflates these tiny human interactions–fetching water, enduring inspections, and celebrating birthdays–to astronomic proportions in IMAX 3-D.
The effect is stunning. Rivers of fire arc from soldier to soldier as the Russians attempt to take the bank of the Volga. A plane crashes into the square with a thunderous explosion. Ash falls like rain on every surface as small skirmishes play themselves out in meticulously choreographed slow motion.
If all the dialogue–shabby from its constant rehashing in Hollywood war movies–had been edited out of “Stalingrad,” the film could have been a gorgeous music video. But the wheezy lines hobble along a plot traveling the well-worn, war-torn track luged by so many Hollywood epics. A Nazi officer falls in love with a local prostitute who reminds him of his wife, then disobeys direct orders to keep her safe. A woman and her child are burned alive in a bus for looking like Jews. Five Russian soldiers–our very own “Band of Brothers”–scrounge for cigarettes while caring for 19-year-old Katya (Mariya Smolnikova), the mother of the faceless narrator we don’t meet until the end. “War is hell,” each character explains (like this is news) as they reflect on all that was lost and the hope that lies in Katya. In a bizarre refiguring of “3 Men and a Baby”–five soldiers, a teenager, and the Nazi horde waiting outside–each Russian competes for Katya’s affection, and one ultimately impregnates her.
This is where the plot really falls to pieces. Viewers intently focused on figuring out when, exactly, the sex happened are asked to refocus on the stakes of the battle raging outside, as the Soviet soldiers valiantly sacrifice themselves in the line of duty to turn the tide of the war. Russia has as much right to rose-colored, patriotic war glasses as anyone–the US has been feeling super great about killing Nazis in films for decades–but the film’s trite plot fails to live up to the grandeur of its visuals. A frame narrative of aide workers (one of whom is our elusive narrator) rescuing trapped tourists after the Japanese tsunami is so unnecessary that it adds a sour taste to what could otherwise be a sweet, silly little story about a girl and a boy and a great big war.
See “Stalingrad” for the contribution Russia has made to quality 3-D cinema, but don’t struggle too hard to read the subtitles. This eye-candy speaks for itself.
“Stalingrad” opens in theaters nationwide on February 28, 2014.