The predicament for German filmmakers who want to tackle World War II is this: how do you make a movie, with heroes and such, about a historical period when your country was out slaughtering anyone and everyone who wasn’t part of their “great white race”? The movie “Stalingrad” answers that question by tackling the dilemma head on, and instead of heroes we have anti-heroes. Does it work? Answer: Every now and then, but not always.
The background to 1993’s “Stalingrad” is the Battle of Stalingrad, a brutal 2-year fight for Russia’s most important city that claimed millions of lives, soldiers and civilians. Hoping to choke off the Russian Army and take Russia, Hitler makes a hard push to destroy Stalingrad, throwing everything he has at to achieve this end. But the Russians also know the value of Stalingrad, and Stalin throws everything including the kitchen sink at the invading Germans. (For the Russian perspective on this battle, see “Enemy at the Gates.”)
Instead of focusing on the war plans and tactics of the battle, “Stalingrad” does the wise thing and decides to follow a small company of soldiers instead. When we first meet Reiser, Rohleder, and Muller they are in the comparable paradise of occupied Italy. Shipped off to join the Russian front, the trio brings along a fresh-faced Lieutenant who hails from a family of distinguished soldiers. At Stalingrad, whatever order or loyalty the soldiers brought with them immediately disintegrates, until half of the company is deserting and the other half are dying from the winter climate.
To watch “Stalingrad”, you would think the German Army has no semblance of loyalty at all among its ranks. While I am not an expert on German military matters, I’m hardpressed to believe that the soldiers in “Stalingrad” can be so overtly disrespectful and lacking in protocol. Besides openly calling their new Lieutenant every name in the book to his face, the soldiers seem hesitant to follow any type of orders at all. With soldiers like these, how the heck did the Germans nearly conquer the world 60 years ago?
Also, there isn’t the epic feel you would expect from a movie of this massive budget. There is really only one major battle scene, which takes place early in the film and lasts for about 15 minutes, but even that battle doesn’t exactly meet the criteria of “large scale.” Later on, there’s a tank battle on a frozen landscape, but I am completely at a loss to understand the strategy or tactic of that particular battle, and as a result it seemed rather superfluous.
Like a lot of War Movies, “Stalingrad” has its share of “War is Hell” moments, like a body shredded in half by mortar fire and soldiers losing control of their bowels during battle. But compared to the physical and emotional havoc of movies like “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Thin Red Line”, “Stalingrad” comes across as rather tame. After the film’s first battle scene, the rest of the movie is a series of seemingly random occurrences where the company slowly but surely degrades into unwilling soldiers and, ultimately, deserters.
I mentioned that the German filmmakers have decided to tackle the infamy of the German army during World War II. Unfortunately this also leads to one problem: the movie makes the mistake of portraying brutal German officers committing various war crimes as too cartoonish. These characters mind as well have “evil” written on their foreheads for all the subtlety the film offers them. I understand the need to accept and show German brutality during World War II, but even the very American “Band of Brothers” showed German soldiers in a more even light. I half expected “Stalingrad’s” evil Germans to sprout hooves, horns, and exchange their Lugers for pitchforks.
There is a lot to like about “Stalingrad”, but it’s not much of a war movie, I’m afraid. There are too many broad strokes and unbelievable situations. The characters’ interactions with the Russians are also a little hard to swallow. During a prisoner exchange one night, a German and Russian soldier exchange food for some reason. Later, a Russian female soldier who has been tied up in a German officer’s hideout and repeatedly used as a sex toy decides she can let go of that whole rape thing and lead a group of German deserters through Russian lines. Yeah, okay, whatever.
“Stalingrad” is most ineffective when it tries too hard to embrace its German past. Had the film stuck to looking at the war and the battle for Stalingrad from a low-level grunt’s POV, it would have been much more successful. Because the soldiers we’re following are front line men, there’s not even a need to show obvious German war crimes. Whenever we do see German officers acting “villainous”, one can’t shake the feeling that we’ve taken a detour from the film’s main story.
Joseph Vilsmaier (director) / Jurgen Buscher, Johannes Heide, Joseph Vilsmaier (screenplay)
CAST: Dominique Horwitz …. Fritz Reiser
Thomas Kretschmann …. Leutnant Hans von Witzland
Jochen Nickel …. Manfred Rohleder
Sebastian Rudolph …. GeGe Muller
Dana Vavrova …. Irina