Opening in limited release is Fedor Bondarchuk's "Stalingrad," a $30 million war epic being released in North America by Sony Pictures. Here's a primer on the film, which looks closely at The Battle of Stalingrad in WWII.
What is the film about?
The Battle of Stalingrad, a story already told in countless books and films, is one of the defining and most brutal battles of the Second World War. With a mix of hubris from the German side, and unabashed attrition from the Russians, this was a seven-month campaign that left more than 1.5 million people dead, yet was critical to breaking the back of the German Army and paving the way for their eventual defeat.
So, what does Bondarchuk do differently?
First of all, he accumulated a substantial budget ($30m) and shot the first non-American IMAX formatted feature film. Presented in 3D, this is Michael Bay-level of spectacle, with massive swarms of soldiers, swooping camera shots, and explosion after explosion.
Michael Bay? Really?
Yeah, and in more ways than one. We've become used to jingoistic, almost propagandistic American films about WWII. If there's a single film that's a model for "Stalingrad" it's "Pearl Harbor," where the scope of a massive battle is put aside save for brief bursts of action, in favour of following the romance of the central figures.
In Bondarchuk's defence, this simplifying of the battle to one central location does work dramatically, and the romance is much more metaphorical than would play in most American films.
Is it historically accurate?
Well, sorta. It's very much an almost operatic take on the battle, and save for the introductory scenes where you have the film's most enduring imagery (the sight of burning Soviet soldiers charging while draped in flames at a fleeing, cowardly Wehrmacht), you almost are made to feel that much of the actual war is taking place just on the other side, which this small ensemble of good guys and bad guys play out their private battle.
That sounds sort of like "Saving Private Ryan"!
That's clearly another film that Bondarchuk is referencing, much more so than, say, classic Soviet-era war films. There's a brashness and a bravado of the film that feels very much in keeping with North American cinema, only that the heroes in this film are, obviously, the Russians.
Does it come across as Russian propaganda, making the soldiers out to be superheroes?
Well, of course it does. But the same could be same could be said of everything from "Rambo" to this year's "Lone Survivor," with shots of American soldiers repeatedly falling backwards off of a cliff and never quite managing to have their spines spring out like a pogo stick.
"Stalingrad" doesn't pretend to be a documentary, but it does provide the grittiness and ambivalence about wartime with what's basically a romantic melodrama. The Nazi soldiers are given enough character that they're not quite as two-dimensional as they could be, and the camaraderie between the disparate Russian soldiers seems genuine.
That's not exactly high praise.
Well, no, it's not. The film is certainly more flash that substance, and part of the problem is that it doesn't quite live up to its beginning as pure spectacle. While presented in IMAX 3D, there's only a few shots that really make you feel that this is anything more than a claustrophobic war scenario, with most of the participants trapped in their respective locations facing off against one another.
When the scope opens up the film becomes more interesting, but there's definitely a feeling that the really exciting and cinematically interesting stuff is taking place just outside of frame. When the battles finally do occur, they're pretty pedestrian, and lack a bit of the energy that the earliest scenes conveyed.
How was the film received in Russia?
Financially, it was a pretty big hit when it was released last year, taking in more than double its budget. It's interesting to note that even Russian critics found the film more of a visual spectacle than a meaty film about such an important historical period. The film was submitted by the Russians as their official selection for the Best Foreign language film at the Academy Awards, but it did not make the short list for this year's nominations.
So, should I spend the money and see it?
I think you should, keeping expectations low. It's an interesting view into contemporary Russian cinema, and it certainly benefits from being projected on the largest screen you can find. If you're ever going to want to see this film, seeing it on an IMAX presentation would obviously be the ideal way to experience it.
Beyond the silly romances and stilted dialogue, there are some great visual flourishes that makes for a pretty good night out at the movies. Don't expect it to teach you much about this battle or the actual history of the event and you're sure to enjoy it on a visceral level.
"Stalingrad" is currently on a limited release in major cities in North America.