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Our review of Stalingrad, published August 10th, 2006, is also available.
The epic battle that turned the tide of World War II.
It is often said that the first casualty of war is "truth." A corollary to that might be that the second cousin of truth is history, and few things were more detrimental to our understanding of history than the Cold War. Ongoing semi-hostilities with the Russians ensured that several generations of American school children got a pretty skewed version of 20th century history. I studied European history for years, and discussed World War II for quite a while. And yet every time the subject came up, the contributions made by Russia in winning World War II were downplayed tremendously—the 20 million dead number got thrown around a bit, and the prevailing wisdom was that Hitler shouldn't have invaded Russia, but for the most part the focus was always on American (and occasionally British) participation and victories. Taking a more global approach, the Russian's were at least as important as British and American forces in winning the war, and the battle of Stalingrad was a decisive part of this contribution. Hoping to bring the same level of prestige to the battle that Saving Private Ryan brought to the D-Day invasion, Stalingrad offers some great-looking battle scenes but stumbles where its human actors are concerned.
Facts of the Case
By distilling the seven-month long siege down to the actions of a handful of men, Stalingrad shows us a group of Russian soldiers holding a building against invading German forces. Though they are besieged by the enemy, they have time to become entangled in the lives of some of the people who live in the area.
Stalingrad wants to be the kind of big, CGI-heavy blockbuster that currently dominates the international film market. Along the way, the film wants to establish Russia as a new site for filmmaking in the world. To get there, Stalingrad tries to achieve two laudable goals. On the one hand it hopes to provide an action-packed overview of the military situation involved in the Battle of Stalingrad. There are soldiers, there's fighting, and there's plenty for action fans to admire. On the other hand, the film tries to give us some sense of the human toll of the siege. Generally speaking, invading Russia is a bad idea, from at least Napoleon onward. Not only are there a lot of people in Russia to attack invaders, but it doesn't have the most arable land, making it hard to provision on the move. On the human scale, then, history shows us a lot of starving people who do what they can to resist (in this case) German invaders.
The problem with Stalingrad is that it aims for both these targets and doesn't successfully hit either one. The moments of human drama feel perfunctory against all the terrible fighting, while the huge scale of the battle is lost when the film gives itself over to the individual battles. Instead of a cohesive, coherent portrait of the Battle of Stalingrad, the film offers a bunch of disconnected scenes that don't give viewers the scale of the massive battle nor a good idea of the smaller, human difficulties that attend any siege.
Stalingrad also gets a pretty great Blu-ray release. The set includes two discs, with the standard Blu-ray presentation on one and the 3D version on the other. Both feature 2.35:1/1080p transfers (MVC for the 3D, AVC for the 2D). The transfers are really up to snuff. Detail is strong, from close-ups on the actors' faces to the wider shots of carnage and violence. Black levels are generally consistent and deep, even in night-time action sequences. Colors are a bit muted, but that seems intentional. Otherwise, they're appropriately saturated. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is even more impressive. Bombers and bullets whiz by with perfect clarity, while dialogue stays clean and clear in the front. Dynamic range is impressive, from whispered words to booming explosions, with plenty of low-end blast.
Bonus features consist of a making-of featurette that runs for 11 minutes and gives us an EPK-style overview of the film. It's not the most extensive featurette, but it does offer some insight. An UltraViolet digital copy of the film is also included in this release.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The individual portions of Stalingrad are pretty good. The action sequences are well directed and appropriately spectacular. The use of 3D has almost always been restricted to sci-fi or horror films, and it's interesting to see it being used here, in a large-scale historical action flick. We get plenty of different kinds of scenes too, from on-the-ground battles between soldiers to the appearance of tanks and planes. Those who just want to see some historically-motivated violence will enjoy the set pieces, even if they don't add up to a satisfying whole.
The human level stuff is well executed. The actors all make the difficulties of Stalingrad believable. Though it's not easy to judge performances in your non-native language, everyone here is convincing in their various roles, from soldiers to officers, civilians and different country's citizens. The performances are especially impressive given that the actors have to compete with the massive spectacle of war, and aren't given a whole lot to do that drives their characters.
Stalingrad suffers for wanting to be more Pearl Harbor than Saving Private Ryan. Instead of "you are there" action, the film opts for slo-mo gloss, turning a decisive moment in the history of the world into an excuse for pretty action shots. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but given the difficulties suffered by the Russians during the battle, it seems a bit icky to give their story the slick Hollywood treatment.
How do you say "not guilty" in Russian?
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