If ever there was a movie to make you pine for the controlled chaos of Michael Bay, look to Fedor Bondarchuk’s Stalingrad. Sold to Western audiences on the basis of an action-packed trailer, 3D IMAX presentation, and boasts about its record-breaking box office in Russia, it offered at most a brainless 300-style reinvention of action cinema, and at worst, a brainless 300-style attempt at reinventing action cinema.
To be clear, exceptional drama, realistic battle sequences, or historical accuracy were never in the cards. Action is all Stalingrad has. Bondarchuk’s most obvious analogue is Bay’s Pearl Harbor, the biggest difference being that Bay knew he’d go more missing than Jimmy Hoffa if his hungover pilots blinked open their eyes to the passing shadows of Japanese bombers just in time for the credits to roll. That’s essentially what Bondarchuk does, falling through on the movie’s promise of epic action to deliver a pious two-location melodrama instead.
It’s not like he doesn’t start with an encouraging concept, either. Stalingrad is a fictionalized account of Pavlov’s House, a lone Soviet apartment building that held out under siege during the first half of the Battle of Stalingrad, finally being relieved by the Red Army’s counteroffensive in November, 1942. In an attempt to honor the heroic dead and preach forgiveness at the same time, Bondarchuk utilizes a baffling framing device wherein a Russian doctor, the son of a woman (Mariya Smolnikova) who lived alongside the house’s soldiers, recounts the men’s bravery to a German family trapped in the rubble of the 2011 Japanese earthquake/tsunami. This means that the narrative is occasionally broken up by a voiceover that takes out a couple minutes at a time to humanize the walking war movie cliches whose slow motion running and shooting we witness.
On the other side of the line is the ever welcome, occasionally token, Thomas Kretschmann as a German captain who’s naturally disillusioned with war. His purpose: remind the audience that, although peace is the current mission, the Nazis were still wrong. His subplot: the conflict between his love for his Russian mistress and his duty to destroy the apartments across the square. His ambivalence saves Bondarchuk the trouble of mounting any especially taxing battle scenes. The ones we do get are snooze button alarms, meant to wake us up as much as they are to save Kretschmann’s captain from the firing squad.
There’s no exaggerating how much of an underpromise the title Stalingrad is, and there’s no exaggerating how much sap Bondarchuk is able to wring out of such a small story. His showmanship informs the fractured narrative, which sprinkles in just enough trailer-friendly sequences (i.e., an entire Russian platoon engulfed in flames storming the German lines) to create Russia’s biggest B-movie of all time, with little to say beyond the same refrain that’s built into all modern war movies. The Eastern Theater of World War II may not be well represented onscreen, but there are more than enough substitutes for this glitzy, gloopy copout to visit instead.