Five months, one week and three days; that’s how long the battle of Stalingrad lasted. One of the bloodiest battles of WWII, the heavy losses incurred by the Wehrmacht made it one of the pivotal points of the conflict. In Fedor Bondarchuk’s Stalingrad (2013), the epic scale of the battle has been recreated in stereoscopic vision, but instead of depicting the devastating human cost of the conflict, war is exhibited purely for the promotion of national pride. The film opens on a Russian rescue team hauling Germans from the rubble of Fukushima. You might ask yourself quite what this bizarre framing device has to do with the conflict on the banks of Volga river – the answer would be nothing at all.
This curious bookending technique is merely used as the grounding for a valiant rescue worker to tell a tale to a trapped German woman about how his mother always said he had five fathers. The men were a group of Soviet reconnaissance troops who occupied a populated building in the heat of a warzone and helped fend of the advancing German army. Within the building lived the rescue worker’s mother, and we learn through the stories she handed down to him the heroics of the Soviet Red Army. The film’s script, written by Ilya Tilkin, has no literary source and is instead a composite of diary entries and archived new stories. This lack of a clear narrative voice becomes painfully apparent once we find ourselves entrenched in the mud and rubble of the city formerly known as Volgograd.
Scenes are either weighed down by excessively patent characterization or littered in a shower of ash and flames. An intrusive voiceover ensures each soldier receives a brief back story, clearly intended to supply some depth to their actions, yet each of these is so loaded with clichés that they invoke laughter rather than pathos. Cultural memory is often bound in political motives and delivered via war movies to help define cultures and promote political ideas. It soon becomes clear that there are no deeper themes being explored here other than some machismo muscle flexing and an empty attempt to promote national pride through mass-produced, populist entertainment at a time where Russian identity has become taboo. The most troubling element of Stalingrad is its problematic depiction of war.
Realism is often portrayed through artifice, but when the artifice is this apparent realism takes a back seat to boorish spectacle. An unhealthy mix of CGI effects, comic book framing and slow motion action sequence remove any naturalism from events, and for all intensive purposes present war as one long pyrotechnics display. Scenes of combat have long been a requisite ingredient in the production of war films, and yet so rarely have they been such a dominant flavour, presenting the audience with a virtual reality of ‘real events’ that by their sheer spectacle seem to have little semblance of realism. This incredibly Westernised presentation of conflict is clearly intended to appeal to mass audiences and promote Russian identity across the globe, but the lack of any empathy towards these thinly-drawn characters removes any sense of tension and excitement from what is an often vulgar spectacle.