It’s perfectly apt, because it would be hard to overstate how large the Battle of Stalingrad looms in the Russian psyche. The crucial Soviet victory over the Nazis in the battle, which lasted six months and was one of the bloodiest in modern warfare, was a key turning point of World War II (what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War).
And the rewards for Bondarchuk have been big so far. “Stalingrad,” with a reported $30 million budget, is a giant hit in Russia.
The only problem is that the film, while impressive in its effects, is lacking in crucial areas, namely characterization and narrative. Perhaps it wouldn’t matter if it didn’t attempt to be a heart-tugging, intimate story about bravery as well as a blockbuster.
After an odd beginning in Japan at the scene of the 2011 Fukushima earthquake, the film flashes back to the autumn of 1942, and the raging battle for Stalingrad, the industrial city (now called Volgograd), with Germans setting Soviets on fire.
Then the focus shifts to an apartment where a ragtag band of Soviet soldiers has established an outpost. There are five men and one young woman, 18-year-old Katya (Mariya Smolnikova), who lives there and defiantly refuses to leave.
In this building — based loosely on a real one known as the Pavlov House — relationships form. The men first want Katya to leave, but a few wind up falling in love with her. Meanwhile, the Nazis are trying to finish off the battle.
The only vaguely sympathetic character is an officer (Thomas Kretschmann), who is handsome and apparently conflicted about what he is doing.
The end goes back to Japan, where a Russian doctor who has been telling his story to young Germans reveals a connection to the house in Stalingrad. Now we realize why we’re there. War is behind us, nations are connected in different ways.
It’s heavy-handed, as is the movie. But if the impressive visuals will lure some to learn about an episode of history they know little about, maybe it’s not the worst crime.
Starring Thomas Kretschmann, Pyotr Fyodorov, Sergey Bondarchuk, Mariya Smolnikova, Yanina Studilina
Written by Ilya Tilkin, Sergey Snezhkin
Directed by Fedor Bondarchuk
Running time 2 hours, 15 minutes