Grading Historical Movies: Joseph Vilsmaier’s “Stalingrad” (1993)

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s HST/FST 252, History at the Movies, are grading historical films and offering reviews on how assigned films render the past.  The tenth film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was Joseph Vilsmaier’s 1993 Stalingrad.

Overall grade from 45 students:  B


Review One

By Stephan Koclejda

Grade:  B-

Stalingrad, a 1993 film by director Joseph Vilsmaier, is a well-executed film about the battle of Stalingrad on the Eastern front that presents a muddy, simplified truth of the German Wehrmacht and the war. Its depiction of urban combat is brutal and gritty, but the sympathetic light it portrays the protagonists (and by extension, the Wehrmacht) makes for troublesome history.

The film follows a few members of a platoon in a Wehrmacht combat engineer company as they finish their leave in Italy, meet their new platoon commander, and are shipped to the 6th Army on the Eastern front to attack the city of Stalingrad in 1942. Some of the soldiers, Rollo and Reiser, are cynical hardened veterans from the unit’s combat in North Africa. Their new Lieutenant von Witzland is from a military family, hopeful and full of purpose at the start. As the situation for the 6th Army deteriorates, the men are reduced to desperate, cold husks by the bloody urban combat and the cold.

One of the big issues with Stalingrad comes from the attitudes of the characters: while they exhibit the various behaviors of soldiers, not one of them (aside from Indiana Jones-esque Captain Haller) ever espouses belief in the Nazi system. Von Witzland and his men are complicit in war crimes and are certainly no angels, but by this time in the war Nazi ideals and beliefs were certainly widespread within the Wehrmacht, entrenched by the brutality of combat in the East. The film (while not overtly) asserts that lower ranks of the Wehrmacht were victims of the Nazis and were not gladly pulling the trigger when told to execute civilians accused of being saboteurs, and that it was a war led by Nazis that led to their destruction at Stalingrad. It tries to contribute to the belief that Wehrmacht soldiers in the East were there fighting for their fatherland. It humanizes the characters and viewers feel sympathetic for Rollo, Reiser, and von Witzland, but it simplifies and muddies the truth of the war of extermination that was being waged in the East.

Stalingrad is a good movie, but not good history.

Review Two

By Megan Drown

Grade:  B-

A terrific manifestation of German apologetics, Stalingrad (1993) proffers a nationalist interpretation of World War II, embracing the arguments about a “clean Wehrmacht” made by Andreas Hillgruber and other German historians during the so-called Historikerstreit (Historian’s Debate) of 1986. The film is a grotesque portrayal of the Battle of Stalingrad in which Wehrmacht troops and the Red Army violently clash during the winter of 1942-43. However, with the onset of the unforgiving Russian winter, both forces face a greater adversary in the weather than in each other as many soldiers struggle to survive the intense cold, let alone fight in combat under such brutal conditions. A romanticized story of brotherhood amidst the grief and misery of war, Joseph Vilsmaier’s film perpetuates a historical and political myth about German moral culpability during WWII, particularly on the Eastern Front, in its separation of Germanness from Nazism.

The presentation of the great moral dilemma is rendered through dialogue between German soldiers and their commanding officers. One scene that is exemplary of this provocative moral dilemma is the interaction between a corporal named Otto and his captain. Otto presses the question on his captain in the face of impending tragedy, “We don’t have a chance. Why not surrender?” to which the captain responds, “You know what would happen if we did.” Otto, clearly perturbed by his captain’s disregard for his troops’ lives poses a greater question: “Do we deserve better?” The captain, failing to accept his culpability for the treachery that will ensue asserts “I’m not a Nazi, Otto.” In one fell swoop, Otto defines the commendable, if not mythical, moral character of him and his comrades, one that is separate from the complicitous behavior of high-ranking officers: “No you’re worse, you lousy officers. You went along even though you knew who was in charge. I told you what would happen.”

Otto’s haughtiness is ironic. Had he no less autonomy over his own complicity in human tragedy if he had predicted the repercussions of Hitler’s Nazi regime? No doubt, Otto is an impeccable portrayal of a patriotic soldier who fights for his country, but his righteousness is absurd. In fact, culpability in the war and in the Holocaust, which is completely ignored in this film, is not dichotomous. Even the lowliest soldier, especially one who opposes the Nazi regime, falls on the gradient of German complicity in genocide, particularly given the revelations about the Wehrmacht’s participation in the war crimes of the Eastern Front. Even the aristocratic soldier who arrogantly removes himself from Nazi ideology, while fighting their war, is complicit. Even the most ambitious soldier, who fights the war selfishly to gain rank and file, is complicit. The argument that high-ranking officials in the Wehrmacht somehow had more self-agency to oppose Hitler and his goals than common soldiers is null when those soldiers are just as instrumental in achieving Nazi aims as the officers who command them. If somehow, there is historic truth in these soldiers’ moral wrestling, their cowardice is greater than that of the Nazis, who actually believe their perverse ideology is furthering a cause.

Complicity in war is a gradient. Did these soldiers have some moral bearings? Sure. Could this have, perhaps, been an accurate depiction of Wehrmacht soldiers on the Eastern Front? No doubt. Is it even legitimate to assert that these soldiers did not partake in the Holocaust on the Eastern Front? Not probable, but it is, indeed, possible. However, Hillgruber’s and later Vilsmaier’s argument that Germany should honor the patriotism of soldiers on the Eastern Front is deeply problematic. There probably is truth to the movie in the nuance and afflictions of the soldiers’ characters, but a belief in their moral rectitude is wrong, even if they, themselves, believe they are innocent. No part of a Wehrmacht soldier’s gradient of complicity is unstained.

Though the greatest discomfort for the audience rests in the fact that there may be some historic truth to Stalingrad, and in the assertion that the Wehrmacht soldiers’ complicity in genocide on the Eastern Front is not dichotomous. The pain of the Nazis’ role in molding German history was the root for the Historikerstreit. One can sympathize with historians’ desire to insert patriotism back into German history; however, the polemic disposition of German historians should be understood with caution as it is enticing to excuse the actions of, seemingly, valiant soldiers, who remain culpable for Nazi brutalities in war. Perhaps the best way students of German history should seek to understand the historicization of National Socialism and its formative role in molding German identity is through Saul Friedlander’s thesis of differentiation and nuance. Friedlander advocated for a critical historical understanding of the Nazi era bereft of the taboos that thematically plague historical analysis of the epoch (1933-1945); however, he argued that while the historicization of National Socialism should shift the static paradigm of this epoch, the normality and relativism of the epoch should still be defined under the criminal system which existed. In other words, Martin Broszat’s thesis that the Nazi epoch should be treated like any other in German history is null; rather Broszat’s was an argument that could easily divulge into apologetics.

To quote Friedlander:  “Indeed, normal life with the knowledge of ongoing massive crimes committed by one’s own nation and one’s own society is not so normal after all.” To close Otto’s rhetorical question, no, him and his troops do not deserve better. This was something of which Otto’s fictional character was already aware in his swift and final act to end his own life. There is no redemption in the face of one’s own complicity in horror.

Review Three

By Steven Waurio

Grade:  B

Directed by Joseph Vilsmaier in 1993, Stalingrad skillfully presents a sympathetic view towards lower-rank German soldiers in World War II that isn’t often given, although it conveniently avoids important historical events in doing so.  By following a single military unit during the German offensive into the city of Stalingrad, Vilsmaier is able to create a narrative surrounding several German patriots with very human and understandable flaws.  Though these characters are forced at times to made awful decisions and to commit terrible crimes, the audience is made to understand that these soldiers struggle to cope with the emotional pain brought about by the decisions they’ve made.  The audience doesn’t see a cast of Nazi zealots who accept orders to brutalize or murder civilians with glee.  Instead, the audience is shown how these characters would try to push back against such terrible orders, or how they find themselves unable to live with their actions after they’re forced to carry out these crimes of war.

The film certainly doesn’t suggest that the German frontline soldiers were innocent.  There are no morally perfect characters in the film.  It does, however, direct the vast majority of blame onto the higher-ranking officers.  These officers, rather than the Russian enemy, are the true antagonists for nearly the entirety of the film.  While the Russians, who, for the most part, are just faceless combatants, are depicted as simply providing resistance against the German offensive, the higher-ranking officers seem to act against the very survival of the men under their own command.  It isn’t until the final words of the film that the Russian impact is driven home.  On-screen text states that the Russians surrounded 261,000 Germans, of whom they only captured 90,000, of whom only 6,000 eventually made it back to Germany.  After trying to grasp these numbers, it’s nearly impossible not to sympathize with the German soldier, or at least the frontline German soldier as they’re depicted in the film.

The only counter to this sympathetic reaction is the fact that the film ignores the first year of the German offensive into Russia, and the fact that the war crimes committed by German soldiers, or even just the war crimes in which German soldiers were directly implicated, were among the most appalling in the world’s history.  By purposefully excluding this history, the film creates a sympathetic view towards German soldiers.  But the fact that it does so takes away from its historical impact.

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