Pyotr Fyodorov and Maria Smolnikova try to survive in "Stalingrad." Credit: Sony
'Stalingrad' Director: Fedor Bondarchuk Stars: Petr Fedorov, Yanina Studilina Rating: R 2 (out of 5) Globes
3-D has existed in film in some form for almost 100 years, and IMAX debuted in 1970. But both formats have almost always been used for one reason and one reason only: spectacle. Every now and then a title thinks outside the box, like Werner Herzog using 3-D to show the contours of caveman paintings in “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” But if you’re using either format — or both together — you’re probably using it because you want to wow the audience into submission.
Perhaps “wowing into submission” doesn’t gibe well with a depiction of a bloody and destructive battle, as we discover in the curiously, impressively misjudged Russian-made “Stalingrad.” The WWII tussle — which found Soviet soldiers battling against the odds, trying to overtake German forces in largely close quarters — gets recreated in all its gory glory. And what better way, apparently, to show the horrors of war than with an enveloping screen and stereoscopic glasses, where you can feel the experience and get arterial spray squirted into your face.
The great filmmaker (and onetime soldier) Samuel Fuller once said that the only way to accurately depict war in cinema would be to have people shooting at the audience with live ammo. But that’s not what “Stalingrad” is going for. It opens with a nakedly “Saving Private Ryan”-esque storm, only with more flamethrowers. The remainder toggles between squirmishes and semi-reflective downtime, with soldiers hunkering down in the ruins of bombed-out buildings.
But the filmmakers don't carry over Steven Spielberg’s mournfulness. The fights actually look pretty badass. An opera singer-turned-soldier is introduced taking out a string of Nazis, like he was John Rambo (but with a lovely tenor). Director Fedor Bondarchuk loves splattering blood everywhere, and hand-to-hand combat is dotted with Zack Snyder’s patented sudden slow-motion that then even more suddenly goes into regular motion. Much of it feels like “Nation’s Pride,” the Nazi propaganda pastiche screened during the climax of “Inglourious Basterds.”
Almost by accident "Stalingrad" does wind up portraying the grind of living inside a protracted battle. Made in Russia as both elegy and celebration, it’s obviously very pro-Soviet, with a couple token quasi-sympathetic Germans slipped in for good measure. But such thoughtfulness doesn’t seem intended. This is an ode to Russia’s ancestors, who fought the good fight against an even worse enemy. Its use of fist-pumping kills is so questionable that the film goes from reprehensible over to harmless kitsch. Like any superhero picture, see it big or not at all.