Rated R Running time: 2 hours 11 min.
Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 8; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
They make a pit, digging it out,
and fall into the hole that they have made.
Their mischief returns upon their own heads,
and on their own heads their violence descends.
Attributed to King David, Psalm 7 is subtitled in the NRSV as “Plea for Help against Persecutors.” From what we know about the Battle of Stalingrad that raged for over 5 months during the last half of 1942 and early February 1943, the citizens of that city on the Volga were certainly persecuted by the Nazi invaders. No one knows the exact number of civilians who perished in the bombings and hand-to-hand fighting, estimates ranging from 100 to 300 thousand. And then there are the estimated million and more Soviet and Nazi soldiers that perished there. Such numbers are beyond our imagining, and so the makers of Stalingrad narrow our focus to a small group of Soviets and a few Nazis, all struggling to stay alive so that they can kill one another. We come to care about them, even one of the Nazis.
The film’s director is Fyodor Bondarchuk, whose father Sergei Bondarchuk directed what is probably the most expensive and lavish film ever made, War and Peace. (Reviewed in these pages last year.) To help us see the magnitude of the battle casualties Bondarchuk bookends the Russian story with that of the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami that resulted in the loss of 20,000 people—certainly a great number, and yet dwarfed by the number of killed at Stalingrad. In Japan a team of Russians has joined the rescue workers digging through the rubble when they discover five German teenagers trapped below. It will require many hours to carefully dig through the debris without causing a cave-in, so the head of the team talks nonstop with a trapped girl named Nina to keep up the spirits of the victims. When she mentions her father, the Russian says that he had not one, but five fathers, thus launching into the story of his conception back during the terrible winter of 1942, apparently on the night of his mother’s 19th birthday.
The flames from the city and the searchlights and aerial blasts light up the black sky as Russian soldiers quietly row their small boats and rafts across the wide Volga during the night. Their goal is to capture a building housing a detonator wired to blow up the Nazis’ fuel storage tanks in order to capture them intact. T he advancing Russians would very much like to use the fuel for their own tanks and trucks. They almost succeed, but Nazi officer Peter Kahn manages to set the explosives off, the resulting series of blasts lighting up the area and killing hundreds.
A Russian team led by Captain Gromov moves into a large apartment building. They are ordered to hold it because it has a commanding view of the river and blocks the road leading through the neighborhood to it. His men soon discover there is still one of the original occupants hiding out there, Katia, the sole surviving member of her large family. Refusing to leave, she becomes sort of a mascot, with five of the team especially taking an interest in her welfare—and one of them romantically.
On the German side there is Captain Kahn and his superior, whom we come to know only as “the Colonel,” a Teutonic beast of a man who coldly orders the civilians living on his side of the battle line to be rounded up so that he can have a mother and her daughter burned alive as an offering to the gods of war. The Captain also is a committed Nazi, but even he winces at this barbaric act. The Colonel has it in for the Captain for two reasons: the former was in charge of the building when the Russians retook it, and he had caught the Captain while the latter was visiting the Russian prostitute Masha. The Colonel orders the Captain to either retake the apartment building or face execution.
The scenes of fighting, much of it hand to hand, is as intense as anything since Saving Private Ryan or Lone Survivor. The scenes of fighting, much of it hand to hand, is as intense as anything since Saving Private Ryan or Lone Survivor. Especially horrifyin near the beginning of the film is the charge of Russian soldiers set afire by the explosions of the fuel tanks. Ignoring their burning uniforms and flesh, they charge into the Nazi trenches intending to kill as many of the enemy as possible before their wn deaths. Set against all the carnage is a shot that we see often in the square of a statue of children dancing. It survives all the blasts and shooting–until at last panzer tanks roar forward toward the building.
Fortunately the many scenes in which we get to know the narrator’s “five fathers” are the heart of the film, showing that even in the most terrible of circumstances some traces of humanity survive and suggest that there is a better world beyond the present hatred and carnage. The sequence in which each of the five men struggle to find a present for Katia’s 19th birthday celebration is one of the most touching that I have seen this year. Given her pluck and desire to help—the first thing she does upon being discovered is to gather the soldiers’ canteens and refill them, and then later she asks the marksman Chvanov to teach her to shoot his rifle. The love for her of radio operator Sergey is underplayed, but this leads to him making sure during the final attack by the Nazis that she will escape the fate of the others in the building.
The screenplay, based on several chapters from Life and Fate by Vasiliy Grossman, brings to life at least a handful of the vast number who suffered so horribly at Stalingrad. Its ending, back in Japan with the German teenagers successfully brought to the surface, also suggests the importance of moving beyond the old hatred between Russians and Germans. The son born in the midst of that hatred and carnage comments that the sacrifice almost seventy years earlier has enabled him to live in a world in which he has never had to endure such a war.
Like virtually all good war films (with perhaps the exception of those made by Quentin Tarantino), this is a pro-peace film exhibiting the madness of war and the struggle of those involved to hold onto a spark of decency. Even the Nazi captain discovers that he can love the Russian Masha, so that he takes great risks to save her when she is about to be shipped to Germany along with hundreds of other civilians. We see her humanity as well, including her shame and her acceptance of the loathing of her neighbors. She is just trying to survive, and not being able to understand German, nor the Captain Russian, she grasps at anything that resembles love. The film does a good job, I believe, in showing that what has been called as the most important battle of WW 2 is made up of thousands of such stories of men and women doing their utmost to contribute to their cause.