Blu-ray Review: Super Stylized War Epic ‘Stalingrad’ is Proud, Goofy

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CHICAGO – It does not take even a high school history class to understand the liberty used in “Stalingrad’s” presentation of its title siege. Boasted as the highest-grossing Russian movie ever, this former IMAX 3D event is the country’s own adaptation of the hero glorification seen in “300”, complete with copious slow motion and overflowing testosterone. Made with great pride but also a somewhat goofy sense of war, “Stalingrad” is as irreverent with its filmmaking style as it is reverent to the country’s glory. Blu-ray rating: 2.5/5.0
Rating: 2.5/5.0

With its characters properly positioned to make the film’s poster echo that of “The Avengers,” “Stalingrad” is a film that draws its characters with very broad strokes. With each of the “five fathers” given a background story through the modern voiceover, the soldiers are written to be differentiated simply by their nicknames and specific traits, the alternative to donning them in different colored suits.

And similar to the “The Avengers,” the warriors in this version of “Stalingrad” also have superpowers, utilizing weaponry with incredible precision and choreography. In other instances, even the idolizing is over-stylized. One scene has a group of people barely dodging a tank shell in slow motion. Another moment involves some bad lip syncing, all with an attempt to get a true emotional note amongst the glossiness.

It is in this aspect where the film also becomes a Russian offspring of a new type of war epic, one involving extreme amounts of slow motion within glorified violence, replete with splashes of very fake digital blood. As much as the patriotism might yearn for comparisons to Michael Bay, “Stalingrad” is most certainly connected to the type of spectacle created by “300”, with the steroid-like quality of “epicness” in tact. To credit of director Fedor Bondarchuk, this film at least does not play out like a mix-tape of fight scenes that Zack Snyder’s overrated Spartan bloody orgy does.

“Stalingrad” takes the liberty to praise a nation’s efforts as an opportunity to be holier than thou. It does this literally, as religious imagery is one of the loudest weapons in its emotional artillery. Various images are used for direct association with the soldiers (such as troops who are shown to be walking on water), or that one of the men is nicknamed Angel, and even says the line, “I’m no devil, I’m an angel.” Before the siege of Stalingrad really kicks off in the beginning, another soldier says, “We are all apostles now.” Even the film’s framing device begins with a Russian plane descending from the sky as if it were departing from heaven (which makes for an awkward coincidence with the beginning of “Triumph of the Will”). The subplot involving Kretschmann’s conflicted German does show some effort to add a bit more color to this, but eventually ends as yet another explanation to why Russians are less fallible than Germans (hey, it’s their movie).

With such an attitude, the film’s pride can lose some luster with goofy arrogance. Its framing device of a Russian man trying to explain to a woman as to why he has five father that he doesn’t weep for comes off as condescending, instead of nurturing. It is fitting, but further odd, that the voiceover ends the film by saying that because of his five fathers, “I have no idea what war is.” The irony, of course, is that such would be said by a movie where a true understanding of can barely be surmised.

Despite the film’s huge box-office success, this Blu-ray is bare bones with its special features, aside from one slim 11-minute behind-the-scenes feature. While it offers little into the process of creating such a big film, it does indicate how “Stalingrad” is best meant to be enjoyed: Bondarchuk is shown in one brief clip sitting behind the monitor in a tent, screaming into a microphone and kicking his feet in the air like a hyper child as he demands more fire, and more chaos. It is a perfect visual.

With many films like it from Russia’s cinematic past, “Stalingrad” is a head-scratcher for how much the expression of patriotism within Russian films has and has not changed since films like “Battleship Potemkin” or “Alexander Nevsky”. As much as this IMAX movie may be using “300” to continue a new vision of battle in film, it is as literal and direct as “Battleship Potemkin”, a statement of curiosity much more than a criticism. “Stalingrad” leaves one to wonder what a glossy, super slow motion sequence on the Odessa Steps would look like, while a bunch of soldiers rip each other up after someone shouts, “This! Is! RUSSIA!”

Stalingrad was released on Sony Blu-ray on May 13, 2014
Stalingrad was released on Sony Blu-ray on May 13, 2014
Photo credit: Courtesy of Sony

Synopsis: Framed as a bedtime story passed on from a Russian humanitarian worker to a German woman trapped after a Japanese tsunami, “Stalingrad” focuses its title event around the lives of a few World War II Russian soldiers, and the woman whose crumbling apartment building they are living in. The year is 1942, and the Germans are ready to take over the city of Stalingrad to begin a path to India in hopes of winning the war.

In this film, the soldiers are considered to be “five fathers” of the narrator, including the “professional hero” Kapitan Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov), angelic Polyakov (Andrey Smolyakov), the silenced opera singer Nikiforov (Aleksey Barabash) and others. They are protecting Katya, (Mariya Skolnikova), who has been stayed in her home throughout the invasion of the Germans, and has grown tired of being afraid.

Meanwhile, a German army captain named Kan (“Dracula 3D’s” Thomas Kretschmann) becomes intimately involved with a Russian woman named Masha (Yanina Studilina), who reminds him of his German wife. As the war continues, though he has a barbaric relationship with her, he begins to feel more invested in her safety.

Special Features:
o Making “Stalingrad”
o 3D Blu-ray Version of “Stalingrad”
o Digital Copy of “Stalingrad”

“Stalingrad” was released on Sony Blu-ray on May 13, 2014.

By Nick Allen

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