It’s hardly the contemporary answer to “Battleship Potemkin,” but the World War II drama “Stalingrad” does hold the distinction of being the biggest box-office success in Russian cinema history. And a look at the film’s first combat sequence affirms that the Russians still like their conflict jarring, as we’re hit with the IMAX 3-D image of the Motherland’s soldiers engulfed in flames, still ferociously charging German lines. They might be victims of an oil-supply stratagem gone horrifically wrong, but they’re still hellbent on dragging Nazis down with them. It’s a brutal bit of screen poetry that’s matched too infrequently by the aching human stories director Fedor Bondarchuk is so anxious to tell.
But first, some context. An opening title reminds us that the Battle of Stalingrad is said to have been the bloodiest single clash in the history of warfare, as the Soviets spent months bitterly, pivotally resisting the Germans’ bid to take the city. The death toll has been estimated at a million and a half. Impossible to fathom? Bondarchuk draws some parallels for peacetimers with a prologue set amid the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan. A Russian doctor on a relief mission surveys the devastation, and can’t help but remember his mother’s accounts of that long-ago wartime ordeal.
And so we travel back to autumn 1942 and meet Katya (Mariya Smolnikova), a quiet teenage girl who refuses to abandon her dead family’s apartment building despite the very real possibility that the city is lost. She ends up in the care of Russian soldiers who’ve found their way to the building, including principled opening-assault survivor Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov) and jittery Astakhov (Sergey Bondarchuk). Clearly, this is the bunch our doctor/conspicuous narrator is remembering when he speaks of his “five fathers.” (Well-intentioned as the script may be, its oblivious melodramatic streak invites some lampoonist thoughts. “How I Met Your Father”? “Papa Mia”?) As immersed as we are in their darkly rendered, penned-in circumstance, the tone is regularly undermined — when the soldiers scrounge up a tub as a birthday gift for Katya, or when unspeaking Nikiforov (Aleksey Barabash), a star tenor in civilian life, sings to her. The filmmakers are after poignant scenes of characters holding on tight to their humanity, but their approach has all the subtlety of those 3-D firefight sequences.
The movie does better with an interwoven story line about a German officer (Thomas Kretschmann of Peter Jackson’s “King Kong”) and a downtrodden Russian woman (Yanina Studilina) tangled in torturous wartime codependence. He forces himself on her, yet clings to her in a world gone mad. She’s debased by him and scorned by her own people, yet feels protected. Russians, he laments in a language she can’t understand, “have turned me into a beast.” It’s a German historical worldview filtered through an enemy prism — comparatively deft work for war drama that’s mostly heavy-handed.