The WWII Battle of Stalingrad, which pitted Nazi Germany and its allies against Russia over five months, is considered one of the bloodiest battles in the history of warfare, and in Fedor Bondarchuk’s Stalingard, now the highest-grossing Russian film of all time, it’s made to look like a Call of Duty-style rail shooter. Gaudily aestheticized, frenetically edited, and completely nonsensical, the film bears the influence of Zack Snyder and Michael Bay, particularly in its ultra-stylized depictions of mass carnage and extreme violence, all captured in 3D-enhanced slow motion. Though not the first Russian film to depict the Battle of Stalingrad (that honor belongs to Vladimir Petrov’s “artistic documentary” The Battle of Stalingrad from 1949), it’s the first to give it an outright melodramatic, Hollywoodized framework, an obvious stab at populist appeal that pays lip service to the real story and the true cost of war.
The mega-budgeted film’s unchecked grandiosity and hyper-stylization plays like Bondarchuk’s fervent attempt to outshine his father, Sergei Bondarchuk, himself a filmmaker with a penchant for spectacle. Our first glimpse of war-torn Stalingrad, which suggests a post-apocalyptic landscape, is impressive for the way the stereoscopic cinematography crisply captures the smoke that floats in the background and the ash flitting in the foreground. A healthy mix of CGI and manmade sets lend a tangible yet otherworldly plausibility to this milieu, placing the film between naturalistic and cartoon spaces. Curiously, though, the film actually opens, and ends, during the Fukushima earthquake, with Russian rescue workers saving German girls from a collapsed building. These blunt bookends are seemingly meant signify the enduring nature of the human spirit—or, more accurately, the enduring nature of Russia’s goodwill toward all mankind. Indeed, it seems Petroy’s film wasn’t the last propagandistic depiction of Stalingrad.
Once the story proper commences, we’re in a bombed-out neighborhood where a group of Soviet troops are holed up in an apartment building with a young woman (Mariya Smolnikova) who refuses to leave, even in the face of German intimidation. She eventually becomes something of a maternal figure to the soldiers—a transparent symbol, then, for Mother Russia—and lover to at least one of them, and together they beat back the Nazi advances and become heroes. Things are livelier across the way with the Germans, where a twisted, Fassbinderesque quasi-romance unfolds. A commanding officer (Thomas Kretschmann) grows obsessed with a local Russian woman, Masha (Yanina Studilina), who resembles his dead wife. A sort of Stockholm syndrome brews between them, their various interactions in a dilapidated apartment reminiscent of a Brechtian two-person theater piece. But even this character dynamic serves only a homespun allegoric purpose, deflating any historiographical possibilities in favor of nationalist braggadocio and lifeless melodrama.
The rest of the film is vulgar spectacle and chest-pounding machismo—all murdered children, buxom prostitutes, fetishistic displays of mechanized weaponry, and enough bloodlust to make Quentin Tarantino blush. Throughout, the characters are rendered superficial, dehumanized pawns in the filmmaker’s board game-like exaltation of a country’s spirit, with the overriding ramifications of WWII treated not so much as an afterthought as they’re seemingly disregarded altogether. Stalingrad’s blind reverence toward the Russian mythos is so grandiose that it becomes impossible to rescue it from self-importance, and as such President Putin would likely give it two big thumbs up.