August 10, 2013

Movie Review: Stalingrad (1993)

The best thing about the cold feel nothing. - Lt. Hans von Witzland (Thomas Kretschmann)

Director: Joseph Vilsmaier

Writers: Jürgen Büscher, Johannes Heide, Joseph Vilsmaier, Christoph Fromm (uncredited)

Producers: Mark Damon, Hanno Huth, Michael Krohne, Günter Rohrbach, Joseph Vilsmaier

Studio: Senator Film

Major Stars: Dominique Horwitz, Thomas Kretschmann, Jochen Nickel, Sebastien Rudolph, Sylvester Groth

Of all the battles humanity has fought, from the plains of Megiddo to the alleyways of Fallujah, none has been bloodier than the Battle of Stalingrad. From August 21, 1942 to February 2, 1943, the armies of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia fought tooth-and-nail for the Soviet industrial city of Stalingrad. When the battle ended, there were over two million German and Russian casualties combined. As a comparison, the United States suffered slightly less than 1,100,000 casualties for all of WW2, Europe and Pacific theaters combined.

It is against this horrific backdrop that we follow a squad of Wehrmacht soldiers in the film Stalingrad. It is a powerful anti-war film, driving home the horrors of war from a viewpoint we rarely see here in the United States.

The film opens in Italy in the summer of 1942. The Germans bask in the sun on leave after driving the British back into Egypt in North Africa. We primarily follow two soldiers, Obergefreiter Fritz Reiser (Dominique Horwitz) and Unteroffizier Manfred “Rollo” Rohleder (Jochen Nickel). Their squad acquires a new lieutenant, Hans von Witzland (Thomas Kretschmann). They are then sent east to take part in the great battle for Stalingrad. Once there, they discover how horrible war can be.

Stalingrad captures what the Battle of Stalingrad was like. Cynical soldiers trying to survive the decisions of officers and generals dancing to Hitler’s tune. Bloody street-to-street fighting that would often find the two sides facing off in the same factory or warily watching each other across a street not 10 yards wide. The creeping realization for the Germans that they underestimated the Russians. And the cold…you can feel it coming off the screen.

It’s not easy using the Germans as your protagonists; after all, this is Nazi Germany you are talking about. But Joseph Vilsmaier does a good job of showing all the different elements that existed in the Wehrmacht. You have the true believers and the cynics. But no one gets a free ride. There are multiple points where a character could have spoken out against a wrong being committed by their leadership and didn’t, making them complicit in the atrocity. By the time they find their voice and their guts, it’s too late.

By film’s end, the battle has stripped away the humanity of everyone involved. Surrounded by the Russians, and marked by all the blood and violence and death, the remaining few stumble out into the frozen Russian steppe, neither willing to surrender to the Russians nor to keep fighting (as some Germans did well into March of 1943) but simply to find a way home. And the ending on that snow-swept plain is a heart-breaking one. Contrasting that to the beginning in Italy, or even the train ride into Russia where all the soldiers are playing cards, smoking and singing, makes it even more painful.

To get the right look of the barren, snow-covered land that was all around Stalingrad, the film was shot in part in Finland, including Kemijärvi, the northernmost city in Finland. It was the right choice because the look that kind of landscape and cold gives the actors and the film is something you couldn’t get in a studio.

It was shot in German and Russian, so the film uses English subtitles. That means you lose a little bit of what they are saying. But I think it stays pretty true to the spoken word. If you see it and speak German, let me know if that’s the case.

Stalingrad is an excellent movie, one that depicts the horrors of war without glamorizing any part of it. It pulls no punches and forces you to realize that even the enemy is human and suffers as much as we do. And that maybe some of them are just like us. Compare that to the “good guy/bad guy” split in a film like Saving Private Ryan or The Devil’s Brigade.

So where does it go on the list? I still haven’t seen a film that tops A Bridge Too Far. But its better than Toko-Ri so the real question is whether Stalingrad tops Saving Private Ryan. In mood I would say yes. But while Stalingrad has its moments of brutal, realistic war (the tank battle in particular), nothing it has exceeds the Omaha Beach scene. And both films display that there are no favorites in war; the people you like the most are often the people you lose. In the end, I have to give Saving Private Ryan the edge, but not by a lot. And that doesn’t detract from what a great film Stalingrad is.

If you want to see Stalingrad you can find the DVD online most places. Make sure it is the one directed by Vilsmaier; there have been multiple films made about Stalingrad. It is definitely worth owning and a good start to any foreign-language collection you may be building.


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