When is watching a historical documentary a lot like making excuses for a mindless mass murderer? According to Judge Bill Gibron, when it's this German-centric take on Hitler's Sixth Army and its winter of deadly discontent on the Russian front.
All wars are fought on two fronts. There is an aggressor and a defender, a friend and a foe. After a victor has been determined, and all the moral and political parameters have been sorted through, sides are assigned and, with them, the standard array of emotions. The loser usually maintains its status as evil invaders, while the winner walks away as the unlikely hero, rising up to the challenge and standing triumphant on the side of right. This doesn't make the losses on either side any more excusable, but when you're comparing conquerors to those they're determined to defeat, the outcome always defines the determination. When speaking about World War II, there is never any room to sympathize with the Third Reich. Run by a ridiculously petty dictator who used the promise of secure state sovereignty as a means of marching across most of Europe, the Nazis knew no consideration. They are the barbaric bastards who killed millions of Jews via genocide as pointless prejudice, while simultaneously slaughtering almost as many in their quest for complete hegemonic control.
So when Hitler's undefeated Sixth Army headed toward Stalingrad to take the city away from its reviled Russian leader, the German soldiers felt as if they were invincible. They had their Fuhrer's blessing, their military might, and their so-far unsullied winning streak, but the sleepy little city on the Volga with its agrarian population was not about to go down without a fight—and over the next few months, the standoff would signal the end of the Third Reich's reign of terror. Divided up into three separate documentaries, the story told in the determined documentary Stalingrad is a very effective, if slightly overlong, look at the events that occurred on the Russian front in the winter of 1942. Divided into segments dealing with the push to the city ("The Attack"), the horrible winter that caused as many casualties as the fighting ("The Kessel"), and the Nazi defeat and the post-war years ("The Doom"), we get nearly three hours of stellar, subjective history.
Once you learn who's behind this production however, the proto-propaganda warning lights start to go off in your head. While no one but the staunchest neo-Nazi would ever consider complimenting the Reich for what it did to the Russian people, German filmmakers Sebastian Dehnhardt Christian Deick and Jörg Müllner are obviously out to show that the soldiers fighting for the National Socialist Worker's Party were complex persons, too—not just some sadistic, jack-booted demons. Granted, as argued before, war is made up of ideologies first, individuals second, but it's a hard leap to make from ethic cleanser to compassionate soldier. Our Teutonic trio handles this Herculean task by making the division of culpability clear-cut and definable. The men who will be interviewed here, from officer to infantrymen, have nothing to do directly with the Holocaust. Many claim not to have known a thing about it and juxtapose the atrocities that they themselves had to live through for seven harrowing months. All the stops are pulled out—animal eating, cannibalism, the purposeful defilement of the human body—in an attempt to try and match the plight of the Jewish people. Of course it doesn't work, but it does misdirect our attention as to the question of blameworthiness.
As a traumatic whole, then, Stalingrad also does something mystifying. It makes us momentarily feel bad for a bunch of old Nazis. In a visual sense there is nothing more heartbreaking than an elderly gentleman, wistful look in his lost eyes, breaking into uncontrollable sobs as he tells his horrific tale, and many of the stories here are horrendous in their inhumanity. Still, biting at the back of our brains are the images captured during the liberation of the concentration camps. So a few German soldiers resorted to snacking on each other to stay alive…boo hoo. Whole families—whole countries—were wiped out in the spray of gas and the fire of a furnace. When Christmas came, there was no joy for the demoralized Reich military…weep, weep. People in Poland and other Eastern European countries would have loved to be able to celebrate something other than their violent overthrow and bombed-out buildings. Unfortunately, a psychotic dictator decided to destroy their homeland as part of some perverse political plan. Indeed, all the historical brainwashing we've experienced at the hand of the History Channel and major motion pictures has proven to us that, as people, the Nazis don't matter, and if one steps away from that truism for a moment, we logically realize that, while ideologically misguided, they were merely men and women. This makes Stalingrad a thorny viewing experience and an even more complicated critical conceit.
There is a great deal here to admire and enjoy. The Sixth Army's hopeless situation—from its lack of sufficient supply lines to its overreaching strategies—does make this a desperately doomed effort from the start, but Dehnhardt, Deick and Müllner try to keep the historic perspective as open and honest as possible. There is lots of criticism of the Reich, its officers, and its overstretched war machine, while the men on the front are portrayed as brave, if baffled. We hear from Russians as well, cocky in the correct belief that they were the victors in this stupid, senseless standoff and that the Nazis' needed to be humiliated for the hubris it took to contemplate conquest in the first place. When the comeuppance comes—during "The Kessel" and "The Doom," the Reich gets it royally—it's time to turn on the waterworks. Now this all sounds incredibly callous, but once you move beyond the superficial showing of emotion (and the occasional blockbuster revelation about eating each other), the story stops resonating. Should we be surprised that ill-prepared soldiers starved to death and died in pools of their own gangrenous filth as their blissfully unaware and uncaring comrades in Berlin partied like it's 1939? Does the fact that a friend lost his life and that he lost an eye, make the narrator anything more than an Aryan thug who thought the sun rose and set on his Fatherland and his leader?
Unfortunately, Stalingrad causes such uncontrollable geopolitical grandstanding. Unlike Triumph of the Will, which celebrated Nazism like a gigantic Germanic birthright, Stalingrad seeks to explore one of Hitler's biggest blunders from the personal purview. As a result, it's trickier in its tendencies. It's at once engaging and infuriating, using the pull of people in their '80s anguishing over the past like a mild, misguided mea culpa. The tale they tell is shocking and sickening and deserves to be heard by all students of war and its effects. Still, to work up an emotional response to something celebrating the sorrow of the enemy is a bitter polarizing pill to swallow.
Synapse Films deserves credit for being brave enough to offer such a slanted look at an already well-documented war. Their transfer of this 1.78:1 HDTV documentary is crisp, clean, and lacking the usually PAL to NTSC problems that critics complain about. The stock footage visuals are often very effective, and the use of CG animation to show the advancing—and the capturing—of the Sixth Army is very informative. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital Stereo sounds excellent, even though there appears to be a single narrator doing both the English voiceover as well as all the "character" turns. The lack of vocal diversity is a little off-putting at first, but the otherwise excellent production values keep the storyline clear and concise. As for added content, we get several deleted interview sections (entitled "Recollections") a video Q&A with Dr. Guido Knopp and a look at Stalingrad today (it is now know as Volgograd). Insightful and often very engaging, they make a problematic historical perspective that much clearer.
Stalingrad is indeed a multifaceted experience. On the one hand are the numerous personal accounts of the events that transpired between August 1942 and February 1943. We are overwhelmed with stories of survival and suffering, and find ourselves pondering man's inhumanity to man, but as it civilizes the Nazi, this three-part lesson in flagrant futility occasionally feels like a blatant backwards apology. Everyone knows what the Third Reich is responsible for, and there is no way to be excused from such mayhem. However, Stalingrad wants to find the heroics among the horror. Unfortunately, it's pitching for and to the wrong team.
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