Is being epic a genre distinction? Even before D.W. Griffith came along there were epic films out there, either historical or biblical, with great big heroes and towering sets. And every age of cinema has had its epic presentations: The Ten Commandments gave us the plagues of Egypt with Charlton Heston to part the Red Sea, David Lean presented us with an epic desert amongst other things, and Baz Luhrmann showed off an epic Australia. It’s all to do with the sweeping music, the majestic pan of the camera, the slow motion and the grand emotions.
Stalingrad has all of these things, and I get the feeling that it set out to put itself squarely in the epic genre. I watched it in 3D and it was an enormous experience, filling my living room with huge explosions and flying shrapnel. Home 3D is brilliant for spectacle – although I wish spectacle didn’t always have to be the overriding factor.
So this is a Russian film that shares some sensibilities with traditional American movie-making: the bigger the better. We are given five heroes instead of the typical one. They are Russian soldiers, fighting in the battle of Stalingrad, and they take on the Nazis in a style worthy of Chuck Norris. There are knife fights and flying kicks (all of which look really good in 3D), but in the quieter moments we get a love story between all the Russian soldiers and the traumatised young woman whose house they have invaded. The soldiers and the woman get to know each other, and their devotion brings some meaning to that terrible conflict. As juxtaposition to this we have a Nazi captain who is raping a Russian woman. She is shunned by her community as a collaborator, and he is disillusioned by the war. As this storyline developed and rape was presented in what felt like a voyeuristic fashion to me, I decided it wasn’t the kind of storyline I could personally get behind.
The score, which sweeps appropriately, was composed by Angelo Badalamenti, and it is one of many elements of the film that ended up having the opposite effect on me than the intended one. Instead of dragging me into the story I felt distanced from it, and the 3D added to this. When a film becomes a spectacle it’s difficult to do anything other than sit back and marvel at it. “Look at that!” I thought, as shrapnel went whizzing past the end of my nose and the music swelled up again. The action was always ‘that’ rather than ‘this’. Everything from the poses of the characters to the piles of rubble were arranged so artfully, and for maximum visual effect, that ultimately it felt like an empty experience for the eyes alone. There aren’t many epic films that solve this problem, for me. The bigger the spectacle, the less involved I feel, from Titanic to Independence Day.
But there were some well-handled emotional moments, such as the Russian soldiers organising a party for their mutual object of affection, Katya (a strong performance by Mariya Smolnikova). They present her with small objects and arrange treats for her, and even though their devotion felt unbelievable, I wonder if that has more to do with how US films have often portrayed Russian soldiers in the past. With Stalingrad as the subject, and knowing this was a Russian film, I was expecting some serious brutality that didn’t really materialise. The more I think about it, the more interesting that element of the film becomes.
And at times I was reminded of the opening of Andrzej Wajda’s brilliant 1957 film Kanal – the desperate living amongst collapsed walls, bombed rooms, the pot plants and the piano covered in dust. I think what I’ll take from Stalingrad as a positive experience is the quiet devotion of Katya to a destroyed house in the middle of a war. That aspect felt more real to me than all the grand emotions that were proclaimed over the backdrop of gunfire.
Stalingrad does contain good things, then, but you have to hunt for them amongst the special effects. Or maybe watch it purely for the fact that it is certainly epic, or to have a think about the way Russian film is choosing to depict its own history. But on an emotional level I found it far from involving.
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