Stalingrad: An Intimate Epic
COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Tim Wilson : Stalingrad: An Intimate Epic
A European trailer for Stalingrad differs from the one typically shown in the US, emphasizing the movie's more intimate moments. Note: it is also more explicit than the American trailer, although far from requiring a "red band" warning.
The success of an overmatched Russian army became a turning point in the war, directly pointing to the collapse of Adolph Hitler's march across Europe, and his defeat at the hands of Allied forces.
This is the setting for Stalingrad, the Fedor Bondarchuk film released to festivals in 2013 (I saw it at the Palm Springs International Film Festival), and receiving wider release in a one-week run at IMAX 3D theaters in the US beginning February 28. (Other theaters will follow later in the year.)
Yes, 3D. Alongside Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity, Stalingrad is a movie that should be seen only in 3D, and, again, alongside Gravity, even 3D naysayers will be well-rewarded with images that are carefully crafted and gimmick-free. The scale of the picture and, even moreso, the sound in IMAX theater will add to the epic experience.
Russian epics are something of a Bondarchuk family business. Fedor's father Sergey directed (and acted in) an 8-hour adaptation of War & Peace, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1969. With an inflation-adjusted production price of $700 million, it is the most expensive picture ever made. Stalingrad was made for a trim $30 million, still high by contemporary Russian standards, and is already the most successful film in Russian history.
AN INTIMATE EPIC
In some ways, this one isn't exactly an epic. (Epic enough, though – 900 actors on a 17-day location shoot, with pyro aplenty and a shooting schedule of 79 days in all.) Neither the war as a whole or this massive battle in particular are the film's concern.
Instead, it focuses on five Russian soldiers who find themselves pinned in an apartment building by a much larger German force – the last building in a small square standing between the Germans and the Volga River. Loosely based around 1942 events in "Pavlov's House," where Sergeant Yakov Pavlov and a small band held their ground in a way that still resonates as a symbol for Russian stubbornness (see also: The Alamo), Stalingrad's central drama revolves around the 18-year old Katya they find in the apartments who would rather die than flee.
Pavlov's House as depicted in Stalingrad
A photograph of Pavlov's House
The soldiers find themselves more concerned for her safety than their own, and it takes some touching turns. One of the sweetest of these is when they risk their lives to salvage a bathtub, and create a cozy, safe oasis for her to enjoy her first bath in years for her birthday. It's one of the tenderest scenes I can remember in any recent film, and certainly unexpected in a "war" movie.
A parallel story is the German officer commanding the larger force from headquarters on the other side of the square. He is played with considerable nuance by Thomas Kretschmann, who may look familiar from major roles in films from The Piano to Resident Evil: Apocalypse, TV shows like NBC's Dracula, and even a voice in Pixar's Cars 2. In fact, some Russian audiences have objected to his sympathetic portrayal. Even his rape of a Russian woman becomes the turning point in his own tragic steps toward redemption, as he turns away from his own cruelty, and the cruelty of the Nazi army's conduct in the square. He too comes to place a woman's safety ahead of his own.
The duel of two captains - Kana (Thomas Kretschmann) and Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov)
(I'm not giving anything away when I say "tragic" steps toward redemption. Epic or no, and tendernesses notwithstanding, this is still a Russian war movie. Tragedies of every variety abound, only some of them fatal.)
There are a bunch of reasons not to like this movie. I disagree with some of the obvious ones, though. Expecting factual accuracy from a fiction has always seemed ridiculous to me, though, and not every movie needs to wrestle with the entirety of the Toll of War on The Human Soul. It was enough for me to have a cracking yarn with mostly likable people trying to preserve what's best about themselves.
Still, it's occasionally sappy, no doubt, and the framing device is ridiculous: a Russian rescue worker in Japan tells the story of "my five fathers" to German youngsters trapped under debris! Something about international cooperation and "see how we all get along now."
By the way, I found it oddly satisfying that, with the exception of our bilingual narrator, the Russian characters in Stalingrad spoke Russian, and the German ones spoke German. As far as I could tell, nobody spoke English. Imagine that!
Captain Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov)
That said, Stalingrad certainly crosses the line in enjoying its own brutality a few too many times. After starting with relative elegance – in fact, something of a stylistic throwback, very much in keeping with the time in which it's set – the super slo-mo (although not terribly explicit) bloodletting toward the end isn't just jarring: it feels amateur-ish. There's actually a blood spatter onto "the camera lens," an effect that could have been downloaded from somewhere on the web. The movie deserves better than that.
Fortunately, most of the time, Stalingrad fares much better than that. Wall-to-wall engaging performances, fantastic art design, a haunting score by Angelo Badalamenti (forever linked to David Lynch through projects including Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive), and remarkable cinematography by Maksim Osadchiy-Korytkovskiy work together in entirely satisfactory ways. (When we're talking about cinematography these days, we're at least partially talking about color grading, and the color in Stalingrad is amazing. Full marks to the DI team.)
Yana Studilina as Masha in Stalingrad
ART DESIGN IN THREE DIMENSIONS
You wouldn't see a color movie in black and white. You wouldn't see a movie with the sound turned off, not even a silent movie. You shouldn't see Stalingrad in 2D. Everything about the 3D in Stalingrad is done with attention to detail, and a commitment to an integrated, organic experience.
Two notes to make about this. One is that Osadchiy-Korytkovskiy is hardly the only cinematographer working in 3D who is doing genuinely exceptional work by any standard you care to measure. The last two Academy Awards for Best Achievement in Cinematography were given for movies shot in 3D (Robert Richardson for Hugo and Claudio Miranda for Life of Pi). As I write this, there is every likelihood that Emmanuel Lubezki will join them with Gravity: three in a row for 3D cinematographers.
The soldiers find a bathtub for Katya. "She'll be happy," they remark.
The other is an observation that the most epic scenes in movies don't necessarily lend themselves to the best 3D. Pull too far back from the scene, and depth flattens. The richest parts of the 3D in both Hugo and Life of Pi came in the some of the closest scenes: the character of Hugo in the bowels of a much larger train station, and Pi in his small boat on a large ocean. (I found the same with the two Hobbit movies: the closer in the camera, the better the 3D, whether alone with Bilbo in Bag End in the first, or nose-to-nose with Smaug in the second.)
Stalingrad is largely set in a small handful of small rooms, contrasting with the admittedly very epic, very moving establishing shots of the battle raging across the city, and the massive German troops and artillery filling the square against our five Russians. For most of the movie, depth is provided by doorways and furniture as in any interior, but also by holes blown in exterior walls. A very subtle, gently falling ash is always at the corner of exterior shots in a way that is not at all as gimmicky as my description makes it sound.
Maria Smolnikova as Katya
The small moments, though – candlelit actors in close-ups and 2-shots, eyes, wardrobe, sets: that's where you see the most depth in life, and it's where the 3D in Stalingrad works to its best effect. And whaddya know, our old friends lighting and narrow depth of field are there to provide depth using the most classical of tools, with the benefit of an extra dimension to support them. The only times the 3D goes wrong are when the narrative and its basic visuals go wrong. A bomb's eye view is no more or less ridiculous in 3D in Stalingrad than it was in 2D in Pearl Harbor.
Otherwise, the 3D lovingly captured on 5K RED Epics, and managed by 3D Producer/3D Visual Effects Producer and 3ality Technica CEO Steve Schklair, is flawless.
(Wait, what? RED Epic? Are you kidding? Almost impossibly appropriately named.) You heard it about Gravity, and I'm telling you again here: no kidding, see Stalingrad in 3D. This isn't just a movie in 3D. It's a 3D movie. You know the difference when you see it, and you'll see it in Stalingrad.
ALL OF THE ABOVE
The aggregators at both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic have it about right: reviewers are split right down the middle. Russian reviewers are running roughly 60-40. On both sides of the Atlantic, some of them deplore the exact things that others praise. Is Stalingrad pandering and self-aggrandizing? Or nuanced and humane? Is it visually dynamic, or just a video game? Well, actually, all of the above. The question is, do enough of these come down at the right end of the spectrum enough of the time?
For me, yes. I have no hesitation saying, go see it. It won't muscle past Saving Private Ryan or even Inglourious Basterds onto the shelf with the all-time greats, but – having noted its lapses – as a moviegoer, I had a great time. And as someone on this side of the moviemaking business, I was impressed. I think you will be, too.