If there is one word that I can use to describe the direction Hollywood is going with their films, its globalization. The marketing of big budget films are more focused on appealing to a wider audience not just from a typical demographic standpoint, but a geographic one as well. Even last year, Iron Man 3 had a version of the film with extra scenes made specifically for the Chinese release, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see other films do the same, since China is one of, if not the, biggest foreign market for Hollywood films. Sometimes there are films where the success almost relies on foreign box office intakes, such as Pacific Rim, which didn’t impress domestically, but did big overseas. With that in mind, it is a bit surprising that foreign film industries haven’t been making big releases here in the States. Sure, we’d have our occasional Oscar-buzz release like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or the surprise hit like last year’s Instructions Not Included (Mexico) and Dhoom 3 (India), both of which managed to open in the top 10 domestic box office in their first weekend, but there haven’t been many films that are actively promoted to American audiences. That is until trailers for Stalingrad started appearing, a film which is not only the first Russian film to be produced in the IMAX format, but the first non-American film to do so. It was announced that Stalingrad would have an IMAX exclusive release for a week in American theaters, so it would be interesting to see how a film like this would pan to an average American audience member.
Stalingrad is bookended by a scene involving an emergency rescue team member using a camera with audio to communicate with a woman trapped under rubble after an earthquake. In order to keep her comfortable by staying nearby, he begins telling the story of his mother and “five fathers.” The story within the Battle of Stalingrad follows a small group of soldiers who take shelter themselves in an apartment complex that is occupied by a woman named Katya (Maria Smolnikova) who decided not to leave her home. Overtime, the soldiers connected with Katya in a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs kind of way, though she does inevitably fall in love with one of them. There is also a b-plot which essentially parallels the Russian’s, in which a German Captain Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann) falls in love with a Russian named Masha (Yanina Studilina). I’ll get to this aspect later. So, that’s the basic story of the film. Of course, as a war film, there are several action scenes here and there to build the tension up to the ultimate showdown in the final act.
I have to say, I initially thought I wasn’t going to like the film. For the first 30-45 minutes, I was very uninterested and frankly, bored, but once everything is established and the story is set in motion by the second act, I did find myself interested and invested in the story. Now, I did think that the love story with Katya and the Russian soldier was unnecessary, but I get why it’s there. However, the love story with Captain Kahn and Masha was not only unnecessary and pointless, but I was genuinely confused as to what I was supposed to feel about it. Their relationship begins in a scene where Kahn is talking to Masha and he tells her that she looks like his dead wife. He then proceeds to rape her. We don’t see it, but it’s clear that it wasn’t consensual. However, he finds himself attached to her and apparently so does she, as she is fine with being around him and even agreeing to go with him to a safer location in the city later in the film. I just don’t understand the point of this story. Is it to humanize the Germans? Probably not, since one: he raped her, two: every other German soldier is without personality or identity of any kind, except for the cartoonishly villainous and unnamed German Colonel, and three: he raped her! Was Masha simply taking advantage of a German’s affection in order to keep herself safe in the war zone? If so, that wasn’t made clear. This is by far my biggest problem with the film, as it acts as a black eye to, an otherwise, decently written story.
Going into the film, based on the trailers I’ve seen, I thought the film was going to be much more stylized than it ended up being. I expected 300 and ended up getting a mix of Enemy at the Gates and Saving Private Ryan. That’s not to say it doesn’t veer off into 300 territory, there are many moments where random slow-motion occurs within the action scenes. Ultimately, these moments feel like a disservice to the film, as the rest of it ends up feeling like it’s better than that, basically making it feel completely out of place. Thankfully, it happens more so in the first half than in the second half. I also didn’t care much for the beginning and ending scenes with the earthquake rescue and the occasional narration, which did give some interesting background information for the characters, but at the end of the day, was a bit distracting. It’s not so much that the rescue scenes were bad, it’s just that it came across as a forced way to get the man to tell the story of his mother to a random stranger. Again, not bad, but could have done without.
There a plenty of good things about the film though. The battle scenes are very well done, providing a beautiful mix of spectacle and grittiness. The cinematography is great, the acting is spectacular across the board, and the music is incredible. The highlight is perhaps the production design, which is so richly detailed that it, along with the effectively atmospheric 3D, throws you into a hellish environment that feels real, and the amazing sound design also helps with this. The characters, apart from the villains, are likeable, if not that interesting, but you do get invested and you do root for them when it all goes down.
Stalingrad certainly doesn’t break any new ground, but it is an above average war film that makes for a satisfying experience. I feel that the lack of depth and interesting characters may damper on its re-watchability factor, but there is something for most people in this film. If you like action/war films, the action’s great. If you are a history buff, you’ll like the period-accurate look and feel. The connection between Katya and the Russian soldiers provides for some heart-warming moments. Granted, by the time you read this, it’s probably out of theaters, but if you’re ever in the mood for a foreign war film, this is definitely worth a watch, sure there are better, but there are also worse.
Side note: One thing that may seem more interesting than the film is the man behind the film, director Fedor Bondarchuk. He is not only an acclaimed music video producer, film director and actor, but he is very popular television host, an owner of three restaurants, and he co-founded Glavkino, which is apparently one of the biggest film studios in Russia. If Stalingrad has accomplished anything, it is that it did make me interested in checking out the director’s other work. If he ever comes across the Atlantic, I would be quite interested in seeing what he can do with the backing of a Hollywood studio.