Before an American goes to see Stalingrad, there are a few things he should understand.
The Battle of Stalingrad was, by far, the most important battle of the Second World War. The invasion of Normandy, Midway, and the Battle of Britain were all side shows. At Stalingrad, 850,000 Germans were killed, missing or wounded. 1,120,000 Russians were killed, missing or wounded, and almost a half a million were killed outright. By contrast, only 291,557 thousand Americans died over the entire course of the Second World War.
Fedor Bondarchuk, the director, is the son of the great Soviet film director Sergei Bondarchuk. His mother is the famous Russian actress Irina Skobtseva. He studied under another major Russian director, Yuri Ozerov. Bondarchuk, in other words, is Russian cinematic royalty. Just think of him as the son of someone like John Ford or Cecille B. DeMille. If anybody should have been able to make a great film about the Battle of Stalingrad it should have been Fedor Bondarchuk.
So what went wrong?
If you look at the box officer numbers, absolutely nothing. Stalingrad was a big hit in Russia. So far it’s made close to 70 million dollars. It didn’t win any Oscar nominations but it did get reviewed in the United States. It got a much wider release in Germany. It’s been praised for its use of CGI and IMAX 3D technology.
Fedor Bondarchuk doesn’t look back at his father’s movies, but to Steven Spielberg and Saving Private Ryan. Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1970 film Waterloo wasn’t a great movie, but it still managed to convey the epic sweep of Napoleon’s 100 Days. The elder Bondarchuk, having tens of thousands of Soviet army soldiers as extras, recreated Marshall Ney’s cavalry charge, the last march of the Old Guard, Wellington’s infantry squares, and the fight over the farmhouse at La Haye Sainte with some degree of historical verisimilitude. His son, on the other hand, relies too much on CGI, slow motion, and special effects. Waterloo gave me an idea of what it was like to serve in the Duke of Wellington’s army. Stalingrad makes me feel like I’m in a video game.
Stalingrad, like Saving Private Ryan, uses a framing device. We begin, in 2011, in Fukushima, Japan. A Russian relief crew has found a group of Germans — yes Germans not Japanese— trapped under a house that’s been brought down over their heads by the earthquake. It’s going to take awhile to get the Germans out, so one of the relief workers, a man born in 1943, begins to tell the story about the Battle of Stalingrad. We never find out about how the Germans feel about it. Would you tell a story about the Battle of Gettysburg to a group of trapped southerners? Well, I might if they were black southerners. If the Germans were members of the Communist Party or even socialists, I might tell them about Stalingrad and about the socialist triumph over fascism. But that’s not what we get.
If the Soviet Army was fighting against fascism in 1942, and if at least some of the soldiers had a personal commitment to socialism, we see little of that here. Bondarchuk films most of Stalingrad as the story of the iconic Pavlov’s House, which, not incidentally, is the site of a genuine historical event where a group of Soviet soldiers held a block of apartment buildings against overwhelming odds. We meet a group of Russian, Russian not Soviet soldiers, a handsome square jawed young infantryman, an angry, but decisive captain, a sharpshooter, a wisecracking hayseed who’s almost certainly based on Private Daniel Jackson from Saving Private Ryan. We also meet Hauptmann Kahn, a German officer in command of the troops trying to capture the house the Russians occupy. What we don’t get is any sense of the real Pavlov’s House. The Soviet infantrymen at Pavlov’s House held it against all odds because they knew they were fighting for socialism against fascism. So what are this film’s Russians fighting for? If not socialism then at least democracy, right? Or one another? Is this one of those war films where a group of infantrymen know the war is futile but make a brave stand anyway? No, it’s clear that these 5 Russians soldiers are fighting for Russian against German nationalism, to save the Slavic race against the genocidal Nazis. That would be OK except for one thing.
Stalingrad has the most retrograde sexual politics of any war film I’ve ever seen.
(I’m not exaggerating that for effect, and I’ve seen a lot of war films.)
Bondarchuk’s infantrymen are fighting to defend a fetus.
As the relief worker at Fukushima tells the story, we learn that his mother, Katya, a 19 year old woman played by an actress named Maria Smolnikova — who looks very much like a Slavic Juliet Binoche — was trapped in the house when the Russians took it back from the Germans.If the mission of the Americans in Saving Private Ryan was to save Matt Damon’s square jawed Aryan rifleman so he could go home and build America, here it’s to save Katya from hordes of marauding Germans. “Saving Private Katya” would have been a better title for this film than “Stalingrad.” We never learn which of the 5 infantrymen got her pregnant, but it was certainly one of them. The baby in her womb becomes the symbol of the future of Russian nationalism and the Germans, in a sense, a horde of abortionists.
To give Bondarchuk his due, his metaphor works better than Spielberg’s. Spielberg may have a better sense of pacing, more skill in putting us in the boots of an American soldier storming the beaches at Normandy than Bondarchuk does at putting us inside Pavlov’s House. Spielberg may not have used slow motion blood splatters or flying karate chops, but the mission of the American soldiers in Saving Private Ryan never made any sense to me. The United States was under no existential threat in the Second World War. The Germans could have driven the American army from Europe and the American people would barely have noticed. So why all the fuss about saving one American private? Just because was Matt Damon? At Stalingrad, on the other hand, the stakes were much higher. If the Soviet Army had lost that would have meant the enslavement and eventual extermination of the Russian people. Mother Russia would have ended up as a footnote of history exactly the way native Americans have. Five Russians fighting to save an unborn Russian from hordes of marauding Germans at the very least makes dramatic sense.
The problem is the way Bondarchuk relegates women to the status of brood mares. In Land and Freedom, Ken Loach’s anti-fascist movie about the Spanish Civil War, women fight alongside men as equals. In Stalingrad, they sit around being pregnant. There’s also an ugly subplot about the German officer Hauptmann kidnapping “Masha,” a blond Russian girl and keeping her as his concubine. This of course is history. It actually happened. The German army wasn’t exactly delicate about helping themselves to Russian women on the eastern front. But Bondarchuk doesn’t frame the story as a vile German fascist and misogynist imprisoning an innocent woman the way Spielberg does, for example, in Schindler’s list. “Masha,” played by Yanina Studilina, like Embeth Davaditz’s Helen Hirsch is a rape victim. So why does Bondarchuk (and his Russian soldiers) treat her as a collaborator. Indeed, when the Russian sharpshooter shoots her through the head and snarls “German whore” the only thing we’re supposed to feel bad about it is how Hauptmann lost his Russian fuck doll. The whole narrative arc is patriarchal, and, dare I saw, fascist.
Indeed, the point of Bondarchuk’s film is to steal the Battle of Stalingrad for Putin’s retrograde sexual politics. I hated it. But go see it if you want to look squarely into the eyes of contemporary Russian chauvinism.