Grading Historical Movies: Fedor Bondarchuk’s “Stalingrad” (2013)

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 twelfth film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was Fedor Bondarchuk’s “Stalingrad” (2013).

 

Overall grade from 45 students:  B-

 

Review One

By Stephan Koclejda

Grade:  B-

Stalingrad, the 2013 film by Fyodor Bondarchuk, presents a Russian perspective on the fierce battle for the titular city with gratuitous special effects. Despite the propagandistic bookending and a contrived plot, Bondarchuk manages to craft a decent critique of the Soviet system within the film’s body.

Set in the almost mythical Pavlov’s House, a group of Russian soldiers take over the building from the Wehrmacht and discover the last remaining resident: a 19-year-old girl named Katia. The main cast of five become protectors and a pseudo-family to Katia, and themselves form the basis of Bondarchuk’s critique of the kind of patriotism in the Great Patriotic War. Everyone has been failed by the Soviet system in a way and ruined by the war. Polyakov lost his family in a bombing near the beginning, Chvanov lost his village to the Wehrmacht, Nikiforov witnessed the atrocities in Belarus and was tortured by the state after making it back to Soviet lines, Astakov was the sole survivor of his artillery battalion in an early battle, Gromov never had a chance to experience anything other than war, and Katia lost her family and neighbors to the fires of battle in Stalingrad. It points to the failures of the Stalin and the Soviet government to adequately prepare for the German invasion and the severe losses that followed in 1941. They all fight, but not for reasons like their unwavering belief in Stalin, communism, or the Soviet system. In fact, Soviet ideology fails to rear its head in the film – not a single political commissar seen amongst shots of the Red Army, nor any fervent praising of Stalin. Hauptmann Kahn, the Wehrmacht officer who was stationed in the house and is tasked with retaking it, is portrayed sympathetically even though he does brutal things like rape a civilian woman who looks like his wife and watch as his men burn a civilian woman and child to death. He blames the war for making him into a beast.

The film is bookended by odd scenes that seem to revive Soviet myth and contradict Bondarchuk’s critique: a Russian rescue mission in the rubble of the Fukushima earthquake in Japan. The narrator of the film, a doctor who is the son of Katia and Astakov, tells the story of a film to a German student trapped under rubble. These scenes make the assertion that the Soviet Union (basically Russia) saved the world by defeating the Nazis, and now continues to save it and do good. It ignores the failures of the Soviet system that Bondarchuk brought up in the war story, and makes for troublesome presentation of history in an otherwise okay Michael Bay-esque film.

Review Two

By Megan Drown

Grade:  B

An unwieldy film about the famous defense of Pavlov’s House during the Battle of Stalingrad, Fedor Bondarchuk’s film Stalingrad (2013) is an awkward and sometimes amateurish representation of a story that is the source of Russian pride. Set during November 1942, the film follows the story of five soldiers and a young woman named Katya who is a resident of the bombed out building the five men end up defending. Like many modern American war films, it is framed by a contemporary storyline: this time about an older man on a rescue mission to save people from the wreckage of the 2011 earthquake that hit Japan. The man is the son of Katya who claims to have had five fathers while consoling a young German woman – remarkably unscathed – who is trapped under the wreckage of a fallen building.

The film employs many devices to keep the audience engaged in the storyline. For example, Bondarchuk parallels the story of Katya’s character with the five men who defend her apartment building to keep the audience engaged in each of the five men’s stories. While the film has impressive visual effects and fits the chronology and events of the battle to protect Pavlov’s house, it executes the scenes, in which Wehrmacht and Red Army soldiers clash, tactlessly. There are many scenes in which the audience is left with a “WTF” feeling, most notably the scene in which one of the platoon officers and trained sniper, Chvanov, shoots a Russian woman that a quintessential conflicted Nazi Captain is sleeping with, instead of the Captain himself. If Chvanov was, in fact, seasoned by war with an insatiable vengeance towards Germans, one would assume that he would choose the Captain instead of the insignificant woman. Nonetheless, the film does contain many accurate historical elements while also evoking emotions that lead to the “shared experience” feeling so craved by American audiences.

Although Katya’s role was intended to make the audience pay more attention to the male characters (which is problematic in it and of itself), she is a charming young woman who is, perhaps, the most developed character in the entire film. This allows one to sympathize with the woman who is headstrong but melancholy; a woman who has had to bury her entire family, her neighbors, and dead children under the ruins of buildings because the cemetery was too far away to reach in the midst of war. Her naivety is almost endearing as she pleads with Captain Gromov to allow her to fight alongside the men since she is 18 years old and thus old enough to fight. Katya symbolizes a beacon of hope and light, Mother Russia one might contend, to the hardened men who come to love her in the matter of two days. Predictably, the men are so beguiled by Katya and what she represents, that they come to fight the battle for her, to protect her, rather, than to fight for home and country.

This development, however, leads to the overall quandary with the film. Is the film, in fact, a propagandistic tool to reinvigorate a sense of pride in Russians? Or maybe to reinvigorate Soviet sentimentalities to the satisfaction of a Russian leader who is nostalgic for the Soviet era? Bondarchuk has been a vocal supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his political agenda throughout this film is as conspicuous as its obvious tactical blunders. Quotes such as “There are no retards in the USSR. There are mentally ill, but no retards,” harkens back to the Stalin-era attitudes in Soviet films, films that were not allowed to portray physical weakness or discontentment of Soviet troops in any capacity. Additionally, the men in the platoon, especially Nikiforov who has been beaten and tortured by the Soviet state after being one of the lone survivors of the genocide in Belarus, have no qualms with the Soviet state. Many of the men in the platoon have experienced loss as a direct result of the Soviet state’s failure to protect its civilians, yet they fight nail and tooth for their country, aimlessly blaming the sociopathic Germans who, frankly, are annihilated in Stalingrad. Bondarchuk has called on the international community to separate his films from his political activism, but one must wonder how it is possible to separate politics from this film.

Review Three

By:  Steven Waurio

Grade:  C+

Directed by Fedor Bondarchuk, Stalingrad is an average-quality film that presents a historical moment in a surprisingly effective way.  Centered on the experience of a group of Soviet soldiers defending a strategic house near the Volga river, the film manages to raise questions about the Soviet state’s culpability for the horrors that its citizens were forced to endure–both at the hands of the Communist leadership and the German army.

In an early moment of the film, a theatrical and fairly ridiculous slow-motion hand-to-hand combat scene makes it abundantly clear to the audience that Bondarchuk will prioritize visual effects over compelling narrative in his attempt to tell a story of one of the bloodiest battles in human history.  This tone is established early on and kept through the remainder of the film, but I don’t mean to suggest that the storytelling itself doesn’t have value.  Despite the somewhat un-imaginative overall narrative, the main characters in the film each represent an accurate understanding of Soviet and World War II history.  The Soviet soldiers are all characterized with motivations that have historical merit, and they all display significant burdens brought upon by the events of the war.  Two of the soldiers, Gromov and Nikiforov, have been rendered brutal by their experiences of war–Gromov as an officer who has never loved anyone or had a home, and Nikiforov as a volunteer who endured a horror of combat against Nazis only to be questioned and tortured later by his own Soviet state.  A third soldier, Astakhov, became combat and gun shy after his entire artillery unit was decimated.  And the final two Soviets, Polyakov and Chvanov, had civilian loved ones die at the hands of the German advance.  Similarly, the depiction of the woman in the household, Katya, presents a reflection of what the experience of a citizen in Stalingrad might have been like.  Her character is implied to have endured various forms of assault during the Nazi occupation, and, through accusing the Soviet soldiers of failing to protect the city, she indirectly accuses the Soviet state as a whole of failing to respond to the Nazi advance.

These depictions imply, at the very least, some connection to the Soviet state’s complete lack of preparedness for the German invasion.  They force the audience to ask, “If Stalin had reacted to the clear indications of impending invasion, would the first three soldiers mentioned have had to see so many of their comrades die?  Would the last two soldiers have had to lose their loved ones?  Would Katya have had to endure the awful experience of Nazi occupation?”  This is particularly important in a modern Russian political climate in which the state has revived the Soviet war cult and begun to more actively censor media critical of Russian or Soviet leadership.  While Bondarchuk’s Stalingrad falls short in many ways as a work of film and art, it stands out for its truth and accuracy in depicting Soviets’ experiences of World War II.

Review Four

By:  Aleah Sexton

Grade:  A-

Stalingrad, the 2013 Russian film directed by Fedor Bondarchuk, explores the heroism and bravery of a unit of five men during the roughest hours of Stalingrad.

The narrator of the film is the son of a young woman, Katya. He tells the story of how each of the five men are his “fathers.” Sergey, a young man recently drafted, is the true father to Katya’s son. The men and Katya grow fond of one another and use the mutually beneficial relationship to find hope and peace from the destruction and chaos surrounding them. As a parallel, there is another love story between a German officer and a Russian commoner, Masha. This relationship is forced; it’s obvious Masha is only “reciprocating” towards the officer for her own protection. Bondarchuk uses these contrasting love stories to play into Nazi stereotypes and build upon the courageous nature of the Red Army during this brutal period. The rhetoric of the Soviet soldiers appears to be selfishness, as they care for each other and the citizens. They place the good of the country above their own desires. This is used to contrast the Nazi sentiment, as officer Kahn continually visits Masha when his men are fighting. The unit of men guarding Katya are gentle, while officer Kahn rapes Masha. Stalingrad genuinely portrays the absolute despair of current-day Volgograd and introduces the various ways war goes beyond the frontlines. The story incorporates the narrator at the beginning and ending scenes, as he comforts German victims in Japan after the 2011 tsunami. Sergey tells the story of his five fathers to calm the victims as they await help. The introduction and conclusion of the narrator plays into the storyline that the Russians are courageous and selfless. By making the victims German, this adds another layer of complexity when the temporal setting changes to Stalingrad.

Based on historian Robert Rosenstone’s analysis of historical films, Stalingrad is a prime example of a dramatic feature film. The dramatic film “aims directly at the emotions” and “individuals are at the centre of the historical process”. Stalingrad used Hollywood tactics to incorporate love and action to revoke specific emotions from the audience. The story of the five fathers is explained with a dramatized plotline to fully engage the audience. Stalingrad does not portray the Soviets as victims to Nazis, but instead instills Americanized notions of heroism to focus on the bravery of the Stalingrad soldiers. The dramatic feature film also places an emphasis on “the visual and aural, and the resulting embodied quality of the film experience in which we seem to live through events we witness on the screen”. The camera angle, music, acting, and overall quality of Stalingrad gives the audience an experience to live in the moment of the battle and feel the anxiousness of the soldiers. Stalingrad is a successful modern war movie in that it educates the audience on the truth of the war, although it was at parts glamorized.

Review Five

By Adam Ring

Grade:  B-

This movie is intense. That initially could go one of two ways, and unfortunately in this case, the intensity actually encumbers the historical authenticity of the movie. That is not to say themes and messages don’t emerge from studying the characters, but overly-dramatic imagery and unnecessary melodrama get in the way far too often. However, once the audience is able to get past all these exaggerated aspects, an interesting message is revealed: the Soviet Union is ultimately to blame for the five main Russian soldiers’ demise.

There are essentially two sub-stories going on: that of the Russians and that of the Germans. On the German side, the interaction between Hauptmann Kahn and Oberstleutnant Henze is particularly interesting. As Kahn objects to Henze locking a mother and her child in a bus and proceeding to burn them alive, Henze compares what he is doing to “sacrifices their ancestors made”. He is committing the most heinous of all war crimes, and yet it does not bother him one bit. This makes Kahn more human, if that is even possible. The war has turned him into a beast, but he was not always like that. He does not possess the same radicalized Nazification that Henze does.

On the Russian side, the movie primarily focuses around a group of soldiers taking cover in a building. These men all have backstories, and as the movie progresses, the audience is able to learn what these men have metaphorically brought with them to war—lots of “baggage”. Perhaps most striking is the interaction between Gromov and Chvanov. After Chvanov helps Katya shoot a German filling up a barrel of water, Gromov shouts that “even animals don’t kill at the waterside”. In his response, the audience learns what Chvanov thinks of the Germans: “Kill them each time you see them”. Later in the film, the audience learns the source of this intense hatred: Nazi soldiers brutally murdered and raped his family. Each of the other four remaining characters have backstories that matter, but what is most important is to analyze why they do. Fyodor Bondarchuk seems to suggest an answer: these soldiers have had bad pasts, then they fight in the war, and then they die. The soldiers are victims of the Soviet Union in every sense.

Lastly, Katia deserves some serious analysis. In many historical films, there is often a “biggest loser”, or, in other words, one single person who suffers the most. Katia unfortunately claims this title. She didn’t ask for the invasion of Stalingrad. Yet, after Stalin ignored credible intel that the Germans would be attacking, she is left to deal with the death and destruction that the invasion brings. Of all the characters, she is the only one not to perish at the end. As an added bonus, she is impregnated with a child from one of the Russian soldiers, all of whom are dead.

This movie has a legitimate message to convey: people come to war with metaphorical baggage, and often end up worse off or dead by the end. So who is to blame? A very plausible suggestion is the Soviet Union, an empire that made the invasion of Stalingrad a lot worse because of inaction. And these five Russian soldiers, and especially Katia, suffer dearly for it.

Review Six

By Madeline Phaby

Grade:  C

Stalingrad is a 2013 Russian film directed by Fedor Bondarchuk and set mainly during the 1942 Battle of Stalingrad. Its principal historical merit is in its accurate depiction of the often-devastating effects that World War II had on everyone involved – both in and out of combat. Unfortunately, much of this merit is lost in the film’s melodramatic love stories, relatively unnecessary special effects, and most of all, the incredibly bizarre plotline. Although these aspects did not explicitly detract from the parts of the film that were historically accurate and realistic, the overemphasis on “Hollywood-esque” techniques and a littering of pro-Russian propaganda strip Stalingrad of much of its historical relevance.

The film begins on a rather confusing note, as it does not initially take place in the USSR at all – or during WWII, for that matter. In the opening scene, a Russian man is attempting to rescue five German children who have been trapped under rubble during a 2011 earthquake in Japan. The man starts to tell one of the German girls the story of how he had “five fathers”, and the viewer is then launched into a flashback. This flashback does take place during the Battle of Stalingrad, and it consumes the majority of the film. In this flashback, the narrator introduces and follows the experiences of five Soviet soldiers who encounter a young woman named Katya when they set themselves up in Pavlov’s House, her place of residence. The soldiers take a liking to Katya, who has witnessed the deaths of all the other inhabitants of the house, even though she is initially critical of the Red Army’s performance in defending the city. That Katya has very clearly been battered by the war enough to express such frustration is a surprisingly clear criticism of the USSR’s unpreparedness for the war and is an incredibly historically significant portion of the film. Katya, however, is not the only one who has been ruined by the war – the soldiers all have their own backstories that have shaped their personalities. For example, Polyakov’s wife and young daughter were killed in an air raid, Nikiforov’s successful career as an opera singer came to a screeching halt when he signed up for the war, and Chvanov developed a blinding hatred for Germans when they burned his home village down. This portrayal of the soldiers as humans rather than blindly patriotic minions who fought exclusively for Stalin is one of the most important aspects of the film. However, far more emphasis is placed on the love story between Katya and Sergey, one of the “five fathers” who is the narrator’s actual father, as well as the special effects that make all of the combat scenes in the film completely unrealistic and overly grandiose. In addition, although the “five fathers” are clearly disillusioned with the war, they are still cited by the narrator as the reason that he “never had to experience war,” thus making them his heroes despite all dying before the narrator’s birth. This, coupled with the obvious social commentary presented by the narrator, a Russian, saving the five German children, turns this potentially accurate and thought-provoking film into little more than a continuation of the highly problematic “savior complex” that plagues Russian memory of its “Great Patriotic War”.

Review Seven

By Blake Mullenix

Grade:  B-

Stalingrad (2013), directed by Fedor Bondarchuk, is a frustrating film. The film’s
opening and closing scenes, along with Hollywood-style heroics and special effects, distract the
viewer from the numerous truths it reveals.

Stalingrad is historically satisfying in that it highlights seldom discussed topics in Russia such as the unpreparedness of the Soviet Union upon the June 1941 invasion. Using five Red Army soldiers, Bondarchuk is able to uncover truths about World War II. Through Nikiforov, viewers are reminded of the atrocities against Soviet citizens, but also of the brutality of the Soviet state. Nikiforov became lost, but by the time he regrouped with other soldiers, he was interrogated by the state as though he was an enemy or a deserter. The character Astakhov is a physical reminder of how unprepared the Soviet Union
was upon German invasion. He was the sole survivor of a formally trained, artillery unit.
Because of the horrors he experienced, he freezes during the Battle of Stalingrad and is branded
by the others as “Sissy.”

Where Stalingrad excels in portraying the variability of Red Army soldiers, it falters in
its depiction of the Wehrmacht. There are really only two Wehrmacht soldiers that Stalingrad
allows audiences a close look at. From a Russian standpoint, Kahn is portrayed in an unique
manner. Kahn is portrayed in a stereotypical, beast-like fashion at times, like when he rips off the
clothes of a Russian woman before he rapes her. Conversely, Kahn is humanized when he
contemplates his actions and says, “I came here as a soldier, but you turned me into a beast.”
And while the depiction of Kahn as ambiguous strengthens Stalingrad’s significance as a
historical film, the character Henze does not. Henze is a character for audiences to root against
and hate in every aspect. Henze is portrayed as pure evil and what real Nazi soldiers are like in
the eyes of Russians.

Although the depictions of the Wehrmacht are questionable, they are not, however, the
most troubling aspect of the film. Three major issues stuck out in this film. The first, and most
minor, is the excessive, Hollywood-like use of special effects. While this did not devalue
Stalingrad as a historical film, it could distract one from truths exposed in the film. The second
issue involves the battle scenes. In every fighting sequence, the Red Army is portrayed as brave,
tactical, and fighting to the very end. For example, at one point Red Army soldiers engulfed in
flames are still fighting Wehrmacht soldiers. Finally, and the most troubling aspect of the film is
the opening and closing scene. The film oddly tries to connect the 2011 earthquake at Fukushima
to the Battle of Stalingrad. Additionally, in the closing lines of the film the narrator posits the
idea that the Red Army turned the tide of “human history,” and thus saved the world. For
everything that Stalingrad does well, especially as a historical film, it fails to establish itself as
an overall satisfying film.

Review Eight

By Paige Ross

Grade:  B

Set two months into the six month struggle that would mark the Battle of Stalingrad as the defining moment of World War II and one of the bloodiest in world history, Stalingrad tells the story of five Soviet soldiers through the recollection of the narrator; whose father was one of the five. In addition to providing context to the emotional aspects of the battle in November 1942, Stalingrad is also a story of love, loss, and the permanent consequences of war. Utilizing emotional appeals, a profound score, and an interwoven dynamic of love and compassion on both sides of the battle, the film captures the essence of war and the senselessness of violent human conflict. The larger “truth” Stalingrad portrays is that of humanity lost, the base brutality of war, and of the acute pain felt by both the Allied and Axis forces.

The film is a well-rounded, historically sound, and dynamic examination of the roles of both the Soviet and German forces involved in the Second World War. Throughout the film, the characters struggle with moral dilemmas that highlight the impossibilities and ambiguities of a conflict such as war: the sequence in which Katya accidentally shoots a German soldier getting water leading Gromov to scold Chvanov for killing an unarmed man, the latter replies, “I don’t give a damn if he’s drinking, eating or shitting. I killed him and I’ll keep on killing.” Chvanov’s callous disregard for the life an unarmed German soldier due to trauma he witnessed at the hands of Wehrmacht illustrates the ever-present pain of the Soviet past. The central conflict presented in the German ranks is the disillusionment of Hauptmann Peter Kahn and his subsequent relationship with a Russian woman named Masha. Early in the film, it is evident that despite prestige and decoration, Kahn is growing restless with the war and its escalating extremity. In a particularly disturbing sequence in which a mother and her young daughter are burned alive after being suspected Jews, Kahn shows obvious disgust and refuses to watch “the sacrifice.” Repeatedly, Kahn is ostracized and reprimanded for his relationship with Masha and he refuses to harm her or send her away, fighting for her safety until the final minutes of the film. While the film indulges in a considerable amount of contrived melodrama, Stalingrad nonetheless helps to convey a sense of history in which the diverse experiences of the Soviet population, various war atrocities, and the Holocaust are explored. Stalingrad’s ability to examine fault and compassion in both the enemy and the victor is one of the paramount strengths of the film as both a work of history and an examination of humanity.

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