In 1942, a group of Soviet reconnaissance scouts led by Gromov (Fyodorov) creep into the devastated Russian city of Stalingrad. Their mission: to capture an apartment building that has strategic value for an upcoming Soviet offensive. But taking the building will prove a lot easier than holding it, when the German forces are prepared to throw everything they have to get it back. While fighting to repel wave after wave of German attacks, Gromov and his ragtag bunch of fighters encounter a young female survivor Katya (Smolnikova), who becomes the group’s focus for holding the building at all costs. Meanwhile, German captain Kahn (Kretschmann) finds himself falling for Masha (Studilina), a young Russian girl who tolerates his advances as a way to survive. But how is any kind of love possible in the middle of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II?
As one of the major turning points of the war in Europe, the Battle of Stalingrad is no stranger to cinema, and has been brought to the big screen no fewer than six times already – most recently as Enemy At The Gates, a fictional retelling of the exploits of famed Soviet sniper Vasily Zaytsev. Kretschmann, who stars here as Hauptman Kahn, also starred in 1993’s Stalingrad, which told the story of the battle from the German side. But while these portrayals have always been sober dramas, this is the first time anyone has taken the battle and made it into such a Hollywood-style spectacle - and in 3D to boot.
For a brutal and tragic event that still holds a place in living memory the 300-style theatrics risk appearing distasteful at times, and director Bondarchuk’s love of slow-motion seems a little overdone (if you reverted all the slow-motion scenes to actual speed you’d probably cut 20 minutes from the running time), but it’s certainly slick and compelling to watch. An early scene depicting scores of Russian soldiers wreathed in flames attacking the German defences is both horrific and visually stunning (this isn’t the only time during the film that you may find yourself experiencing these two feelings simultaneously).
Considering the director’s politics (Bondarchuk is a well known supporter of Russian president Vladamir Putin), there’s was a risk that Stalingrad would become a propaganda poster for modern Russia, but in fact the story gives a pretty fair portrayal of both sides (something Bondarchuk has come under figurative fire for in his home country). And despite the rather overblown filming style, this is not a stand-up-and-cheer kind of war film, but one which effectively communicates the sheer futility and brutality of war and leaves the viewer utterly exhausted by the end. While Stalingrad is hardly the first film to take a historical tragedy and weave a love story into it (Titanic, Pearl Habour and the upcoming Pompeii), the romance here doesn’t feel like it’s been slapped on to widen its appeal, but instead is done well and made crucial to the film’s anti-war message.
The film reportedly cost $30 million to make, but the faithfully recreated scenery and battle scenes involving hundreds of real-life extras mean the end result looks far more expensive and epic on screen. Stalingrad the city comes across as a hellish ruin, and when the fighting gets going it feels, appropriately, like the end of the world, and about as close to real combat as you’ll ever hope to get.
3D QUALITY ★★★½ The 3D transfer here is as good as it was in the cinema. A bonus is that because it's a fairly dark, grey and murky film to start with, it never looks appreciably darker in 3D than it does in 2D, which is a common 3D problem. The 3 does certainly add the immersive element that you want from this film, sucking you in to the gritty reality of the battle scenes.
EXTRAS ★★ The packages comes with two discs, both containing a copy of the film - one in 3D, one in 2D. The 3D disc has the making-of featurette Stereoscopic Stalingrad (5:34), which goes into a little of the detail abut how the film was shot in 3D. Shame, then, that it is presented in 2D. The second disc has the featurette The Making of Stalingrad (11:34), as well as some trailers for other Sony Blu-ray releases.