There’s something altogether uneasy about the depiction of war in Fedor Bondarchuk’s Stalingrad (2013). It’s nothing to do with the flag-waving patriotism nor any kind of moral quandary, but instead the Russian blockbuster’s slick, stereoscopic visuals. A sea of blue-grey is dimmed further by 3D, whilst explosions provide the majority of colourful focal points in a representation of a war-torn city that never quite feels right. It could potentially be part of the plan, for a plot imbued with a fable-like quality, but it’s all far too weightless. For a drama with a heavy emphasis on spectacle, it’s an odd sensation when the visuals are so alienating.
Bookended by an entirely unnecessary framing device, the bulk of the action takes place in the titular city in the midst of the Second World War. A narrator, introduced in the prologue, is to spin the yarn of his “five fathers” who are soon revealed as a rag-tag band of Russian soldiers battling the Nazis. They meet in a devastated apartment building in which they then encounter the beautiful young Katya (Mariya Smolnikova) who is still attempting to live there. As they settle in to hold their position – and in doing so halt the Nazi advance – they all begin to develop a fondness for the bold gamine. This largely forgettable group of guerrillas beds down in resistance to a snarling German colonel and his subordinate, Captain Kan (Thomas Kretschmann).
Kan has himself a young Russian lady that he visits in the night – because she reminds him of his deceased wife – and plays the part both of adversary and the stereotypically honourable (but not that honourable) Nazi. That’s pretty much as profound as things get, with each of the Russian soldiers afforded a brief backstory that is intended to supply depth but never does. Ultimately however, while this may be Russia’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee, Tarkovsky it isn’t – there are no deeper themes to be explored here. The film is action epic above all and whilst it never really gets the pulse racing as it should, this is certainly the area in which the film reaches its zenith.
The battle sequences are sometimes clichéd but manage to be kinetic in a way that is never achieved elsewhere. An over reliance on slo-mo there may be, but equally Bondarchuk seems most at home when he’s directing impressively choreographed combat (realism be damned). Smolnikova is by far the most engaging of the performers, but when they are given such little to do it is hardly surprising. Instead, this is a film for action aficionados and has already proved wildly popular in its native Russia and China. If you’re after a wartime spectacular, there are better places to find it than Stalingrad.