The film 2013 film Stalingrad directed by Fedor Bondarchuk is a Russian film about the famed battle in the titular Soviet Union city. The action-packed war movie is the highest grossing Russian film ever produced and was filmed in IMAX 3D. The film follows a group of Russian soldiers in World War II who defend a strategic building in the city. In the process, two Russian civilian women fall in love in the midst of the battle – one with a Russian soldier, the other with a German soldier. With this effort, Bondarchuk set out to make an emotionally resonant film about the brutal realities of war, while concurrently providing exciting action scenes to engage the audience. Although visually appealing at times, the film fails in so many other regards that it ultimately leads to the construction of something hollow and lifeless.
The story is really the film’s first and greatest failure. The narrative is convoluted at best, with no clear protagonist, which leaves a lot to be desired. Adding to that is the fact that the film is all told through flashback and the film is bookended by scenes from present time of a relief worker who recounts the story of his mother’s time spent in the war before he was born. This serves as the most unnecessary plot device and unnecessarily complicates the narrative. The film may have been better served if it lived and died all in the same time period, keeping it more contained and less muddled. Take a bad story and fill it with flat, uninteresting characters and you have a recipe for a great film.
Wait, that’s actually a recipe for a terrible film, which this is. The characters are all one-dimensional, and because there is no one obvious protagonist it becomes hard to root for anyone in this two hour and ten minute tale. One could argue that the female leads were the most interesting characters, but the audience learns very little about them and they are hardly sympathetic. Great war films give insight into the lives of the characters outside the war and how the constant stresses of battle have affected who they once were. In Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg, 1998) for example, the audience learns multiple sides to every character throughout the film – who they were before the war, who they are now, and that is what makes an audience care for them. The only example of a character with any real backstory is the musician who plays a birthday song for the female lead near the end of the film. In large part, however, this film alienated its characters by giving them no context, and in the process alienates its audience as well. This is a problem that bleeds into the rest of the film and makes other aspects flounder as well, such as the action.
Action simply does not work if the audience does not care about the characters. Take a great action movie such as Iron Man (Favreau, 2008). Tony Stark is rude, arrogant, and egotistical, but he is also charming, charismatic, and likable. When he’s in danger, the audience is on the edge of their seats because they care about Tony and don’t want him to get hurt. If the audience does not care about the characters it makes no difference if they live or die onscreen. This is most notable in Stalingrad in the scene where the blonde lead is shot in the head near the end. There was not even a hiccup of emotion because she was unsympathetic and the audience knew nothing about her. Not only was the action unengaging emotionally, it was also poorly executed.
The action is all shot in such a way that it feels like a bastardized version of an American action film. The over-cranked footage mixed with under-cranked footage using a Steadicam to circle around blood spews and explosions felt like a badly imitated Zack Snyder or Michael Bay action scene. On an even smaller level, there were just a lot of missed punches and reactions that are only exacerbated by the slow motion and take the audience out of the film each time it happens. The movie is undoubtedly intended to be a spectacle, shot in IMAX 3D, but comes across instead feeling like a B-movie ripping off the style of great American action directors. The action is stylized and exaggerated to the point of exhaustion, climaxing with a scene so ridiculous the audience laughed. This of course was when the Soviet Union soldiers intentionally shoot a missile at a disabled tank so that it ricochets around a corner to kill enemy troops.
This is not to say there were absolutely no redeeming qualities of the film. The cinematography was beautiful at times and the production design was really striking. The film used a nice color palette of cool blues and warm yellows and oranges. These colors work together in a way that is not just cinematic but also symbolic of the harsh juxtaposition of a love story in the midst of a brutal war and one of the bloodiest battles in human history. The camera movement and lighting all worked seamlessly in the slower, emotional dialogue scenes to a level that the action scenes could never achieve. Similarly the production design was detailed and always felt authentic. This was especially notable in all the exterior scenes in the streets, where the filmmakers undoubtedly used sound stages but the production design was so seamless that one could not tell the difference. For a film that cost only 30 million (Boxofficemojo.com), the set design and execution is an extremely impressive feat considering the amount of [bad] action and visual effects the film had, which will typically suck up a production budget of that size with ease. That being said, there were still a few missteps in the cinematography and production design departments. There was an excessive use of day for night photography at the beginning of the film, which looks strange to the average viewer and completely takes an experienced viewer out of the scene. It was used mostly at the beginning of the film when the boats full of soldiers are arriving on shore. This is most likely because it is extremely difficult to organize such grand scale films on location with that many moving parts is extremely difficult to do in the dark. Also, it seemed as if the soldiers’ costumes had just been pressed, even at the end of the film. Their faces were black with dirt and oil, but even in the final scenes the soldiers were wearing suits that look as if they had just come from the dry cleaners (because they probably had).
In all this film was a grand misstep for director Fedor Bondarchuk, and for Russian cinema as a whole. The film failed on so many levels that it is difficult to say what the film did right. While the cinematography and production design were on par with a typical American film, other aspects floundered. The screenplay was one of utter confusion that was unnecessary and did not point to any clear protagonist. Because there was no protagonist and all the characters were uninteresting and one-dimensional, the rest of the film suffered and especially the action. Given that this is an action film from another country, one would expect them to do things differently or approach the material in a different manner. Instead Bondarchuk chose to imitate an American style, but with much less poise. Despite all this the film still managed to make more than any other Russian produced film in history, although that would not make it the first terrible film to make money – ask Bondarchuk’s role model Michael Bay.