Stalingrad, Russia's box office smash and the first Russian film to be released in Imax 3-D, would have fit quite nicely at the opening ceremonies of the just-ended Sochi Olympics. A bit violent, perhaps, but in terms of flag-waving Putin-esque spectacle, this thunderous reimagining of World War II's historic battle celebrates the stalwart spirit of comrades, outnumbered and out of ammo, who nonetheless vanquish the Aryan scum from the west.
"Scum!", in fact, is one of the Russians' battle cries.
"Kill the bastards!" is another. At least that's how it's translated in the subtitles. Maybe the original dialogue is more nuanced.
Directed by Fedor Bondarchuk, and taking its slo-mo, in-your-face, artery-splurting inspiration from 300 and other such purveyors of a CG-ized visceral aesthetic, Stalingrad finds a small band of Soviet soldiers holed up in a bombed-out building across the square from a Nazi installation. Five men, including a famous tenor, a goofy-eyed marksman, and an officer in the Worker Peasant Army, hunker down, taking potshots at the Germans who dare to venture into the open.
A fragile young woman, Katya (Maria Smolnikova), who has a bit of Audrey Hepburn about her, wanders around the building, too - she never left, and now she's living, traumatized, amid the ash and ruin. Understandably, several of the Red Army guys fall for her, while across the way, a Nazi captain (Thomas Kretschmann) has taken up with a local blonde (Yanina Studilina). The captain's commanding officer does not approve of the relationship, and says as much, in between sessions with his personal barber. What's left of the Stalingrad citizenry aren't pleased, either: They stare daggers of disdain at the wayward woman.
Bondarchuk's fight choreographer and stunt team bring the hand-to-hand, bayonet-to-gun-butt combat to life with an adrenalized sense of danger and dread, while broken tanks, rotting corpses, a crashed bomber, and piles of bricks and smoldering beams dot the rubbled landscape in artfully eerie tableaux.
Stalingrad is long and operatic, but its message is simple enough: War is hell, but hell, it makes for good cinema.
Stalingrad ** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Fedor Bondarchuk. With Petr Fedorov, Sergey Bondarchuk, Mariya Smolnikova, Yanina Studilina, and Thomas Kretschmann. In Russian and German with subtitles. Distributed by Sony Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours, 11 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, adult themes)
Playing at: area Imax theaters