'Stalingrad,' Russia's first ever 3D film, is a drama set in 1942, during one of the most important battles of World War II, which stopped the progress of Nazi forces and turned the tide of war in favor of the Allies. The Soviet army mounts a counter-attack on the Nazi forces that occupy half of Stalingrad on the other side of the Volga, but the operation to cross the river is unsuccessful. A few soldiers who managed to get to the other side take refuge in a house on the bank of Volga. Here they find a girl who didn't escape when the Germans came. While the whole might of the German army descends onto them, the heroes of Stalingrad experience love, loss, joy and the sense of ultimate freedom that can only be felt by those about to die. They defend the house at all costs while the Red Army prepares for another attack. 'Stalingrad' was selected to represent Russia in the best Foreign Language Film category of the 2014 Academy Awards
The battle of Stalingrad was a seven-month standoff between German and Soviet forces. Hitler's Wehrmacht had marched east into Russia, a seemingly uncontainable force, but was finally stopped on the shores of the Volga River. Stopped in Stalingrad. Historically speaking, this conflict turned the tide of the war against Germany. And some historians would argue this battle was the greatest in all of World War II.
Much like the English-language production, 'Enemy at the Gates', writers Ilya Tilkin and Sergey Snezhkin, and director Fedor Bondarchuk use a limited character POV to weave a grander tale. That is, 'Stalingrad' juxtaposes grand military offensives, enormous explosions, and air raids, with a small band of heroic Russian soldiers assigned to hold a strategically important apartment building on the river's edge. It is, in a sense, a microcosm of the whole battle, each man and woman representing a much larger piece of what different Russians experienced.
"Five men, weary form two years of fighting, blown by the wind from the big towns and hidden backwaters of our enormous country, to a city spread along the banks of a great river...
Five men and my mother."
Complicating matters, our five Russian heroes (along with others who come and go) are not alone. A young woman, Katya, has been living in the building because it is her home. Having lost all her friends and family and neighbors, she refuses to leave. The battle weary Captain struggles with ensuring this woman is not a distraction. Not in the love or lust sense, mind you, but in something more noble. If the Captain's men fall in love with this woman and she is killed, will they be able to keep fighting without her?
On the other side of this conflict, we have the brutish Nazis, represented by Kahn. While not as cruel as the ranking officer, Kahn has fallen in love with a Russian woman, Masha, who resembles his dead wife. Masha, however, hates Kahn because he rapes her when he is frustrated and, thanks to his affections, she has become an outcast. Masha's arc is a tragic one, where she must decide whether or not she is better off with her enemy, or her own people who loathe her.
The film then becomes a chess game between the Russians, with one motor shell and very few bullets, holding their ground, and Kahn, who becomes increasingly desperate to take the building. There are a lot of great cat-n-mouse sequences and gun fights, offset by quiet moments where each of our five heroes spend time with Katya. In each of their own ways, they have a chance to fall in love with her. Through Katya, there is a reason to fight.
Watching 'Stalingrad' is a mixed bag of pleasures and odd sensations. I imagine this is what it's like for foreign audiences watching American blockbusters. It's incredibly well produced, with tons of slick visuals and haunting imagery, but I don't always connect with the cultural touchstones, which I find fascinating. For example, there's definitely an overlap in how Americans and Russians portray heroic soldiers (upping nobilities and minimizing cruelties). But heroism to these Russian soldiers includes shooting any sailor or soldier who dare question Mother Russia's orders.
Another oddity is a present day framing device, where the film is actually a story told by a Russian rescue worker to a German woman trapped under a collapsed Japanese building just after the March, 2011 earthquake. At first, 'Stalingrad' seems to be an overtly serious version of 'How I Met Your Mother', with a man telling us about how his five Russian fathers met his mother. However, as the film progresses, we realize this is more of a metaphor than a literal mystery.
From a character standpoint, everyone does a fine job with their roles, everyone has a specific back-story, but watching 'Stalingrad' the first time, I wondered if an extended cut, or full blown mini-series, would have give more time to flesh out the characters. For example, think of how much better 'Band of Brothers' became as it expanded its narrative or multiple episodes. However, after revisiting the film in two dimensions, I think my main structural question is the lack of clear character introductions. Given the present day framing, the voice over device is already in play, but is held back, for the most part, until halfway through. Funny enough, despite his overt brutality, Kahn's pathos and goals were instantly identifiable in a way the main characters were not until much later.
One last quibble for me is Stalingrad's relevance as the most important battle in Russia's history (WWII speaking). The film says as much a few times, but -- and pardon me if I missed something here -- the story the filmmakers are telling doesn't seem to have a big impact on this battle. I suppose this speaks to metaphor. These five men aren't literally our narrator's father, and this one apartment building doesn't literally change the tied of the war. But should it?
For example, in 'Enemy at the Gates', the Germans needed to assassinate a Russian sharpshooter to demoralize the Russian people (and the Soviet propaganda machine). That cat n' mouse game didn't, itself, turn the tide of the war, but from a structural stand point, it seemed tied to much larger events. Because the events of 'Stalingrad' feel a bit more disconnected, despite the voice over saying they are, I wonder if the film actually achieves what it has set out to do emotionally or thematically.
Despite a few questions and quibbles, much of them likely cultural, 'Stalingrad' really impressed me. I'm looking forward to checking out more Russian viusal effects extravaganzas. I may not always get the societal nuances (at first glance), but I can't help but applaud grand, ambitious filmmaking and estimate this will improve upon repeat viewings. If you ever get a chance, I highly recommend checking 'Stalingrad' out at least once to see what your own reaction will be.
The Blu-ray Vital Disc Stats
'Stalingrad' makes its North American debut courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. This Region A locked edition includes one Blu-ray 3D, one Blu-ray, and an UltraViolet code for a Digital HD copy. 3D trailers include 'Men in Black 3', 'The Amazing Spider-Man 2', and 'The Amazing Spider-Man'. 2D trailers include a Sony ad for Blu-ray, 'Pompeii', 'The Raid 2', 'A Fighting Man', 'Company of Heroes', and 'Monuments Men'.
'Stalingrad' wages war on Blu-ray 3D and Blu-ray with two impeccable transfers framed in their original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratios. The encodes are MVC for 3D, AVC MPEG-4 for 2D.
I originally set out to write two separate reviews for the 3D and 2D versions. However, other than my preference for watching 'Stalingrad' in its native 3D format, both versions are reference quality and look virtually interchangeable (you know, save for one of them being in 3D). Meaning, every compliment I could give to one would apply to both.
Despite abundant darkness and gritty, gray landscapes, this Blu-ray stuns in terms of color and resolution. Various ramped slow motion stunts and explosions are hypnotic and gorgeous (not to mention horrifying). Fine details -- think sets and costume -- are resplendent. Skin tones, on washed faces, are even. Black levels are deep, while shadow details remain intact.
The 3D adds to the already dynamic experience, sucking viewers into a world of flying bullets and constant smoke and falling ash. It succeeds in creating that nice window-into-another-world effect. The 3D is particularly exciting in special effect sequence where the camera moves across the city, or when there are aircraft cutaways.
Overall, 'Stalingrad' is a Hollywood-caliber production with a fine mix of real world sets and special effects, alongside state of the art stereo visual effects. These 3D and 2D presentations are slick, resolution abundant, and gorgeously rendered. Another big Blu-ray win.
'Stalingrad' roars onto Blu-ray with two robust 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtracks.
While I listened to the default English dub while typing up this review, the original Russian track is a much better experience. First, the dialog in the English mix is a little hot. Second, you lose most of the original performance nuances with the dub, which is a little cheesy.
Audio fans are going to love the original Russian 5.1 DTS-HD MA track. Dialog is clean. The surround panning is highly immersive -- everything from crashing planes to whizzing bullets. There are oodles and oodles of LFE hum and thrum under many moments, adding a sense of scale and sometime even dredge. This mix is everything you would expect from a epic action extravaganza, though it's just shy of perfection.
First, there are many 7.1 (and some 5.1) that are slightly more articulate in their ability to build sonic landscapes. Basically, this track is very loud (in a wonderful way), but it's not quite as nuanced as others in this genre. Also -- and this is much more of a personal quibble -- there is an echo effect applied to some gunshots and explosions that sounds a bit more like a mistake. It's an odd warbling sound that sounds a bit like a film print (actual film) that was improperly secured in the projector (an unlocked "gate"), or an poorly rendered sound file that has been slowed down. Regardless, I'm sure it was intentional, but it bugged me.
Quibbles aside, while just shy of perfection, most of you are going to love this loud, LFE-heavy, aggressively panned 5.1 sound track.
On the Blu-ray, The Making of Stalingrad (HD, 11:34) is a short EPK about the film's production, based around an interview with director Fedor Bondarchuk and his cast. What's interesting about this is to see how much exposure and color grading matter in creating the final image.
'Stalingrad' is a fascinating Blu-ray experience. The movie has lofty ambitions to tell the story of an entire country at war through the eyes of six people who are fortunate enough to spend two days together during one of the most horrifying battles this world has ever seen. Through a relationship with one strong girl, five men find a reason to fight. However, I'm not sure if the experience is as strong as it could be, because there isn't enough time to spend with the characters.
This Blu-ray is a stunner, with reference quality 3D and 2D video presentations and robust 5.1 DTS-HD MA sound mixes. The special features aren't great, but that's okay. I'm a little torn on what to make the final score on this one, given the high quality video deserving of a Recommend, and a movie experience that might be more of a Rent first to see if this is your cuppa tea. So let's split the difference and call 'Stalingrad' worth a look.