PLOT:A rag-tag group of Russian soldiers fighting in the battle of Stalingrad, hole-up in a decimated apartment block where they find a young woman, Katya (Maria Smolnikova). Their interactions with her give the men back a sense of their humanity, which they had to suppress for war, but with a determined German officer (Thomas Kretschmann) hot on their trail, the men must once again prepare to lay down their lives for the greater good.
REVIEW:Fedor Bondarchuks STALINGRAD broke Russian box-office records when it hit theaters in the fall. With a hefty $30 million budget (low by North American standards, but astoundingly expensive for Russia), STALINGRAD marked the first time a Russian film was shot in native 3D, and also the first time an international film was made specifically for IMAX 3D (although Chinas THE MONKEY KING was the first in-production I believe). After becoming the highest-grossing Russian film to date domestically, and also playing to boffo box-office in Asia (it was smash in China) STALINGRAD 3D hits North American theaters for a limited one week run in IMAX 3D.
Considering how lean the month has been for big-budget eye-candy with ROBOCOP underperforming STALINGRAD makes for an interesting alternative for moviegoers, as theyll be able to experience a foreign tentpole movie the way it was meant to be seen, on the giant IMAX screen. STALINGRAD was Russias official submission for the Oscars this year, but if that makes you think this is a serious, thoughtful WW2 movie like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN or THE THIN RED LINE, youre mistaken. Bondarchuk is like a Russian Michael Bay, with this packed to the gills with non-stop action, and the goal here seems to be more to pull at the heartstrings and entertain rather than educate (don't expect anything on the horrors of Stalinism).
Fact is, theres nothing wrong with that approach as long as its done well. STALINGRAD, despite having heavy doses of melodrama and schmaltz, is a well-made film. Anyone who knows anything about the battle of Stalingrad knows that the subject is crying out for a major big-screen treatment, with the last noteworthy effort being ENEMY AT THE GATES. Bondarchuk seems to be heavily influenced by Sam Peckinpahs Eastern front masterpiece, CROSS OF IRON, with one of the main characters being a hard-bitten German officer disgusted by the sadism of his Nazi commanders, but compelled to fight to the best of his abilities. Granted, this is an ultra-jingoistic Russian production that portrays the Russian soldiers as heroic to a fault, while the Germans are barbarians to the extent that they burn a woman and her child to death because they suspect them of being Jewish. However, the fact that Thomas Kretschmann is able to instill his German soldier part with even the slightest bit of humanity is more than I expected, and hes excellent.
Again though, this is a celebration of Russian patriotism just like PEARL HARBOR was a celebration of the U.S. If anything, this reminds me of the kind of movies Hollywood churned-out during the war when Russia was an ally, and their soldiers were celebrated in movies like THE NORTH STAR or DAYS OF GLORY (the makers of which were swifted blacklisted once the Cold War began). Each of the soldiers gets a suitably tragic backstory, the most memorable being the silent soldier who was once an Opera star, but took a vow of silence, making killing Germans his only priority. This is (a bit clumsily) counterbalanced by the movies framing device where the descendant of one of the characters works to save a couple of German children who are trapped during the recent Japanese Tsunami, distracting them by telling war stories, the idea being that time heals all wounds.
Obviously, STALINGRAD must be watched with a certain context in mind, but if you can get past the Russian super-patriotism and heavy doses of melodrama (neither of the TITANIC-style opposing love stories really work) theres a lot about this to admire. For one thing, the CGI and 3D effects are superb, putting to shame a lot of recent American blockbusters. You can tell this was shot in 3D and the idea of shooting a hard-core war movie in that format makes for some really impressive visuals. One such scene involves a troop of Russian soldiers being set on fire by an exploding fuel dump, but instead of encouraging them to retreat, the super-soldiers charge the German lines fully engulfed in flames (a scene that probably made Vladmir Putin weep). I dont know how accurate this is, but it makes for a pretty kick-ass action sequence. The battle was also noted for the amount of close-quarters combat the soldiers were forced to engage in, and the brutal scraps are really well-staged and shot. I can imagine Bondarchuk being given the reins of a big American film on the basis of this. He does a lot with $30 million, making it look like it cost at least five times that.
While theres probably a more thoughtful, less action-y version of STALNGRAD to be made, it cant be denied that as a pure action spectacle STALINGRAD delivers. Its packed with wall-to-wall action and melodrama, with Bondarchuk throwing in everything but the kitchen sink (although a bathtub does figure prominently) to entertain you. Its certainly not perfect, but its rousing, often thrilling, and worthy of being seen on the biggest IMAX screen you can find.
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