The highest grossing Russian film of all time replays one of the bloodiest chapters of the Second World War through the eyes of German and Soviet soldiers involved in the stand-off.
Stalingrad is the first project of its kind shot using IMAX 3D technology and Fedor Bondarchuk’s epic certainly looks spectacular in the eye-popping format.
Ash flutters down over the embattled city, bullets whizz out of the screen and several pivotal action sequences are breathlessly choreographed to take full advantage of depths in perception.
Audiences get plenty of bang for their buck and eye strain is minimal, despite a running time that exceeds two hours.
Scriptwriters Sergey Snezhkin and Ilya Tilkin choose a clumsy framing device: the efforts of a Russian crew to rescue five German teenagers from the rubble of the 2011 earthquake in Tohuku, Japan.
As the youngsters lay gasping for oxygen, one Russian rescue worker distracts the quintet with his remarkable family history.
“I had five fathers. They’re all dead,” he claims.
The rescuer’s anecdote harks back to September 1942.
Captain Gromov (Petr Fedorov) leads a small troop of soldiers against the Germans, storming buildings one by one.
The men include sniper Chvanov (Dmitry Lisenkov), who doesn’t believe in mercy, and boyish radio operator Sergey (Sergey Bondarchuk). Having stormed one building, Gromov and four surviving soldiers discover a terrified 18-year-old woman called Katya (Mariya Smolnikova). Her humanity touches the military men and they become her protectors, which poses a problem for Gromov.
“They’re not fighting for their country, they’re fighting for you,” the Captain warns Katya.
However, his own feelings cloud his judgement even as the German troops begin to swarm, and when Sergey spirits Katya away to a hideout and dreamily professes, “I’ve loved you for two days now”.
On the other side of the town square, German Captain Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann) is infuriated by his inability to overwhelm Gromov’s close-knit team.
He takes out those frustrations on a blonde woman called Masha (Yanina Studilina), who submits to the officer’s will.
Sadistic Nazi Colonel Khenze (Heiner Lauterbach) eventually goads Kahn into drastic action, lighting the fuse on an explosive final showdown between the two sides.
Stalingrad is an unapologetically patriotic spin on history that papers over the cracks of a lightweight script with stunning visuals, stirring performances and Angelo Badalamenti’s heart-tugging score.
Bondarchuk’s directorial brio holds our interest rather than the simplistic narrative, aided by an ensemble cast, who hunker down for the film’s big set pieces.
Digitally enhanced skirmishes between German and Soviet troops look stunning, bringing home some of the sound and fury of that ill-fated autumn.