Film #38 in the World War II Marathon is one I have been looking forward to for a long time now!
Written By: Jürgen Büscher, Christoph Fromm, Johannes Heide & Joseph Vilsmaier
Directed By: Joseph Vilsmaier
The Battle of Stalingrad in the real world is epic. It is one of the events in World War II that for those of us who are buffs of said war can never get enough of. It was thee battle of the Russian Front, the conflict that showed Adolf Hitler was losing his grasp on the war. This is the battle that began to show the tenacity and resolve of the Russians, and proved that the best equipment in the world and the best soldiers the world has possibly ever seen matter naught when they are frozen in place. I have read copious amounts of material about the Battle of Stalingrad, and that is one of many reasons why I looked forward to a viewing of the movie about this World War II conflict.
There were a few times during Stalingrad where I had trouble keeping track of what was going on. At first I told myself this was the intent of the director, Joseph Vilsmaier. He wanted to confuse and disorientate during battle, to show how hellish and confusing battle is. Then a problem began to develop, even while not in battle I had trouble keeping track of who was who. For a while I convinced myself that the fault was mine, I simply wasn’t paying attention enough. Then after the problem refused to go away I realized that the film wasn’t doing enough to differentiate its characters. In order for Stalingrad’s anti-war message to get across I needed to know on the spot what character just shot his own brains in and why that was important. When that specific scenario happened I thought it was one soldier until later dialogue allowed me to see that it was in fact another character. And thus, I bare to you my biggest gripe with Stalingrad and what I feel holds it back from elite World War II film status.
There are also more than a few moments in the film that feel disconnected, and personally I couldn’t help but sigh at the direction the film takes in its last half hour. I wanted the teeming masses of German soldiers, the conflicts with the Soviets. I wanted the war, I wanted Stalingrad to be about the larger scope of the Battle of Stalingrad. The film I have heard most people compare to Stalingrad, usually by saying Stalingrad is superior, is Saving Private Ryan. Both films take similar approaches, isolating a group of men from the unit whole. Stalingrad is very anti-war, while Saving Private Ryan is more about the idea of war as a necessary evil. Those philosophical approaches aside, the biggest difference between the two films is that I never felt detached from the greater scope of World War II during Saving Private Ryan. In every step those soldiers took I felt like I was in the thick of World War II, and I can’t say the same for the steps of the soldiers in Stalingrad. I wanted to see that from Stalingrad, instead I was given a very small and insulated story. A story that still works mind you, but it never reaches the heights that it could (the character muddling I spoke of earlier is definitely a factor here) and that left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.
I realize I have been very negative about Stalingrad so far, and that isn’t how I feel about the film. I took many positives away from Stalingrad, I need to make sure you know that. It wonderfully recreates the time and place of the Russian Front in the 1940’s. While I don’t feel it handles its progression of time all that well (one scene the Germans are crushing the Russians, the next scene they are in dire straights) it does do a splendid job of presenting the realities of war on the Russian, or Eastern, Front. As the film progresses one can sense how much of a lost cause this is for the Germans and how they literally have no options left. Stalingrad is also a visually striking film at times, and handles its battle scenes very deftly. Like I said, I know I have been overly negative about Stalingrad, and I really shouldn’t have been. It’s just that for some reason on this viewing the negative aspects of the film stuck out more to me than the positive ones, maybe possible future viewings will change that.
I didn’t go into my viewing of Stalingrad looking for any great truths about war or any sort of pro/anti-war message. I went into my viewing of Stalingrad hoping for a war film that would live up to all the hype I have heard about it through the years. A number of people whose opinions I greatly respect told me of the greatness of Stalingrad, and I was suitably pumped for this greatness to wash over me. That was my first mistake, I elevated the film to a high level before I had even laid eyes upon it, how could a film possibly hope to live up to such lofty expectations? But, some films do, some films live up to even the loftiest of expectations and that is why when I look back at Stalingrad I am comfortable telling you it is a good film, but not a great film.