Was the German soldier an ordinary man trapped in an evil cause? Was General Von Paulus and the German Sixth Army “stabbed in the back” by Hitler and the German high command? Was the kessel on the Volga in the Winter of 1942 and 1943 the first real “death camp?”
Fedor Bondarchuk’s 2013 rewrote the Battle of Stalingrad as a victory of right-wing Russian nationalism over German nationalism.
Stalingrad (1993) Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943 (1999) rewrite the victory of Communism over Fascism as the agony of General Von Paulus and the Germany Sixth Army.
Stalingrad (1993), which was directed by the German filmmaker Joseph Vilsmaier, follows in the tradition of the better American films about Vietnam. Like Olive Stone’s Platoon or Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, Stalingrad centers the war on a group of likable everymen trapped in a hell not of their own making. The film opens in sunny Italy. We meet Lieutenant Hans von Witzland, a proper young man from an aristocratic Prussian family, and Sergeant Manfred “Rollo” Rohleder, a veteran of the Africa Corps. At first, we are led to believe that von Witzland is a Nazi. He refuses to pin a medal on the rough-looking Rohleder when the latter refuses to button up his collar during inspection. “Heroes aren’t late,” he says to Rohleder and his friend Corporal Fritz Reiser. But once we get to the frozen steppe along the Volga, we realize that von Witzland’s proper, “by the book” Prussian militarism actually means the opposite. He’s an old school German conservative who violently objects to Russian prisoners being abused. He hates the Nazis. Fritz Reiser, who’s played by the French actor Dominique Hororwitz, is a tough-minded realist who’s determined to survive at any cost. That Reiser is played by the very Jewish looking Horowitz sends a clear message. Von Paulus’s soldiers were not all Nazis. Like Americans in Vietnam, they were just soldiers with rotten leaders.
We meet two German captains.
Once again, we follow the convention pioneered by Erich Maria Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front, and revived in American Vietnam War films in the 1980s. Captain Hermann Musk, played by the Czech actor Karel Heřmánek is a hard man but a good officer. He’s respected by von Witzland, Reiser, a teenage recruit named “GeGe” Müller, another soldier named Müller and Otto, played by Sylvester Groth. Captain Haller, on the other hand, Dieter Okras, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Chris Hedges, is a straight up Nazi.
As the battle, and the Winter, wear on, von Witzland and his platoon realize that their real enemy isn’t the Russians. It’s Captain Haller, and the high-command back in Berlin. The climax of the film comes when von Witzland and his platoon take a Russian factory, but are quickly surrounded by the Russian army. They escape through the sewers (echoing the classic Polish war movie Kanal), where Emigholtzone, of von Witzland’s platoon, is severely wounded. Von Witzland, Reiser, and Rohleder, like any good soldiers, refuse to leave their comrade on the battlefield. They drag him through the sewers to a German field hospital, where they hold a German orderly at gunpoint. “Save him,” they demand.
Holding an orderly at gunpoint to save a comrade, of course, is what any good soldier would do. You don’t fight for your country. You fight for the guy on youur left and on your right. In an American film, they’d be let off with a stern warning and sent back to the front. But this is the German army at Stalingrad, led by the incompetent and worse. Von Witzland and his platoon are transferred to a punishment detail disarming mines. They’re doomed and they know it, but it really doesn’t matter. Their goal now becomes twofold. On the one hand, they want to stay alive. But on the other hand, they want to avoid becoming war criminals. They fail in both. After Captain Haller orders them to shoot a group of Russian civilians, von Witzland and Reiser are horrified, but they go through with it anyway. Later, they get their revenge. They “frag” Haller, after he threatens to kill them for “looting” some chocolate dropped by the Luftwaffe into the kessel, and take over a bunker filled with food and drink for senior German officers.
They also find a Russian woman named Irina, played by Dana Vávrová, the film director Joseph Vilsmaier’s wife. She not only looks like Anne Hathaway. She speaks fluent German. Von Witzland, who we realize by now is not only a good man trapped in a bad cause, but a hero, refuses to let Reiser, Rohleder and Otto rape Irina. There’s little danger of it anyway. The three men are desperate to have a woman one more time before they die, but they’re also in no mood to frag von Witzland, or the severely wounded Musk. Otto, unable to deal with the war crimes he’s been forced to commit, kills himself. “Heil Hitler” he says, just before he puts a gun in his mouth and blows his brains out. Rohleder takes Musk back to the front, where they meet a long line of German POWs with their hands in the air. Irina offers to help von Witzland and Reiser escape the Russian encirclement, The walk through the snow. Just as they appear to have made it behind the Russian lines, Irina is shot by Russian soldiers. Von Witlzand, who’s now too weak to go on, dies in Reisers arms. The snow covers both their bodies, the Prussian aristocrat and the working-German soldier, faithful to each other in death.
While Vilsmaier’s film may ignore the heroism of the Russian soldiers who defeated fascism at Stalingrad, he certainly captures the hell of the war on the Eastern front. Stalingrad may not have the same technical virtuosity of Saving Private Ryan, but it does show mass, industrial warfare for what it is, the assembly line destruction of the human body. Von Witzland and his platoon live in filth. They don’t have enough to eat. Getting wounded is essentially a death sentence Indeed, one of the strongest scenes of Stalingrad takes place in the field hospital where Reiser holds the orderly at gunpoint. It’s a meat factory. We can almost smell the burned, rotting flesh. We hear the unanswered groans of the dying German soldiers. It’s as close as a film can get to the Ninth Circle of Hell.
Once you’ve read Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943, you realize that even Vilsmaier’s film only gets part of it.
Antony Beevor’s idealogical point of view is more or less the same as Vilsmaier’s. Paulus was a mediocre general out of his depth against Russian masters like Zhukov. The German Sixth Army was betrayed by the high command in Berlin. Beevor had access to newly available Soviet documents in the archives that were opened up after the fall of communism. His main contribution to history seems to be documenting the extent to which the NKVD coerced Russians into the war against Germany. Beevor certainly documents the Stalinist terror against ordinary Russians well enough. But he fails to address two things.
1.) Why the Russians fought on so heroically at Stalingrad in 1942.
2.) How the NKVD’s coercion of ordinary Russian soldiers in 1942 compares to the French capitalist army’s arbitrary mass executions in 1917.
Where Beevor’s book really shines is in the same area Vilsmaier’s film does. Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943 portrays the German kessel (cauldron) on the Volga as the first death camp. Hitler and the German high-command’s callousness towards their own soldiers is every bit as horrifying as their callousness towards the lives of Jews and Slavs. That Beevor seems to believe in a moral equivalence between Stalinism and Nazism in no way lessons the power of his writing. The vast, minute descriptions of starvation, of massive lice infestations, the effect of the climate on the human body, the sheer incompetence of Hitler and the German general staff puts us in the boots of a German private at Stalingrad. It’s as effective an anti-war book as I’ve ever read. Like Vilsmaier, Beevor’s message for all of us is “disobey your leaders. Trust in your own judgement.”
But it’s still not the whole story. Indeed, after Bondarchuk’s Putinite travesty and Beevor and Vilsmaier stating the obvious – war is hell — I still want to see someone make a film about how and why the Soviet Union (the Soviet Union not Russia) saved the world from the Nazis at Stalingrad. Maybe Oliver Stone can give it a try. He’s already made an excellent documentary about the eastern front. Maybe he can make a film about Stalingrad.