During an early blitz of action in Stalingrad, there’s a shot of Russian soldiers engulfed in flames, screaming as they fire guns at their German enemies in slow motion. This more or less defines the movie’s dominant aesthetic: It imagines the bloody Battle Of Stalingrad as Wanted’s Timur Bekmambetov might have choreographed it. This is World War II history so vital it can apparently only be conveyed through speed ramping.
Bekmambetov did not actually make Stalingrad, and to be fair, director Fedor Bondarchuk mounts a physically impressive production with less computerized chintziness than, say, Day Watch. The tactile set design, heavy on rubble, proves vital to the story of Russian troops who, in the aftermath of that nasty opening skirmish, hole up in a dilapidated building to regroup. There they encounter young civilian Katya (Mariya Smolnikova), and grow attached to her as they plot to hold their ground against the Nazis. The film’s present-day narrator, Katya’s grown son, refers to the men as his “five fathers.” He often recites their backstory over footage of explosive carnage, as if no one will pay any mind otherwise.
The task of taking back the house—and with it, the rest of Stalingrad—falls to Kan (Thomas Kretschmann), a Nazi captain who, in a queasier parallel love story, has selected a Russian woman (Yanina Studilina) as his personal aid and object of lust. Though she initially looks frightened of and repulsed by the invader, their relationship changes over the course of the movie; whether she sees his softer side or simply angles for her own survival remains ambiguous.
Then again, the presumed ambiguity could just as easily be a product of the movie’s sketchy character development. This extends to the main Russians, too; the movie unintentionally obscures the identities of the narrator’s much-vaunted five fathers. Even late in the game, an otherwise evocative shot of surviving grunts sitting quietly together on some steps fails to clarify which five of the six men in the frame are the important ones. It may be that the important ones are whoever happens to be shooting, stabbing, or screaming at any given moment.
The film calms down a bit in its second half, leaving more room for Bondarchuk’s striking wartime tableaux, making occasional use of its native 3-D cinematography. (The movie, a massive success in Russia last year, will screen primarily in IMAX 3D venues in the U.S.) The camera snakes around corners and half-decimated walls, carving out space for these desperate men. Yet the IMAX-ready details still get lost in action sequences that include not just the aforementioned speed ramping and slow motion, but shell-POV shots and a brief employment of what could archaically be referred to as “bullet time.” It’s easier to notice these techniques than to figure out who’s getting killed and how. Bondarchuk is doubtlessly attempting to convey the chaos and horror of war while paying invigorating tribute to the Russian soldiers who gave their lives at Stalingrad. But too often does he goad his characters to brim over with righteous bloodlust—and, despite the occasional obligatory misgiving about the barbarism of war, goads the audience to lust right along with them.