It's clear that Russian director Fedor Bondarchuk was going for something, well, big, with "Stalingrad," the first-ever Russian film in IMAX 3D.
And in a sense, that's perfectly apt, because it would be hard to overstate how large the Battle of Stalingrad looms in the Russian psyche. The crucial Soviet victory over the Nazis in the battle, which lasted six months and was one of the bloodiest in modern warfare, was a key turning point of World War II—or what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War.
And the rewards for Bondarchuk have been, yes, big, so far. "Stalingrad," with a reported $30 million budget, is a giant hit in Russia—the studio calls it the highest-grossing Russian movie of all time—and also has done huge box office in China. Now, it's coming to IMAX 3D screens in the United States for a week, during which the filmmakers hope to spark further interest.
The only problem is that the film, while certainly impressive in its effects and a few rock-'em sock-'em battle scenes, is sorely lacking in crucial areas, namely characterization and narrative. Perhaps it wouldn't matter, if the film didn't attempt to be not only a blockbuster but a heart-tugging, intimate story about bravery, endurance, sacrifice and love. To accomplish that, you need a compelling script and complex characters.
The movie begins in a peculiar way. Why, you might ask, are we in Japan? Turns out we're at the scene of the Fukushima earthquake in 2011.
Flash back some 70 years to the autumn of 1942, and the raging battle for Stalingrad, the industrial city (now called Volgograd) that lies on the Volga River. In a spectacular scene, the Germans ignite their fuel supply and pour it down onto Red Army soldiers advancing from the river banks. But the Soviet men fight on, though they're being burned alive.
From macro to micro: the focus shifts to an apartment building devastated by Nazi air strikes. There, a ragtag band of Soviet soldiers has established an outpost. Keeping the strategically located building in Soviet hands is crucial to stopping the Germans. There are five men, and one young woman: 18-year-old Katya (Mariya Smolnikova), who lives there and defiantly refuses to leave.
In this building—based loosely on a real one that became known as the Pavlov House—relationships form. The men first want Katya to leave, but a few wind up falling in love with her.
Meanwhile, the Nazis are trying to finish off the battle. An evil commander is bedeviled by head lice even as he murders women and children. The only vaguely sympathetic character is the officer Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann), who is handsome and apparently conflicted about what he is doing. He takes up with a local beauty named Masha (Yanina Studlina). He'll fall in love with her, but the way he treats her before that will frankly make viewer sympathy rather implausible.
With the two women serving to humanize the narrative, the war proceeds. At times, you'll be reminded the film is in 3D, as when a bullet comes flying through space.
We end up back in Japan, where the Russian doctor has been telling his story to the young Germans—he's connected in a key way to that house in Stalingrad—and now we realize why we're there. War is behind us. Nations are connected now in different ways.
It's rather heavy-handed, as is the movie. But if Bondarchuk's impressive visuals will lure some young people in to learn about an episode of history they know little about, maybe that's not the worst crime.
"Stalingrad," a Columbia Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "sequences of war violence." Running time: 135 minutes. Two stars out of four.
MPAA definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.