Sunday, December 28, 2014

Movies in History: Stalingrad, Enemy At The Gates, and Stalingrad

By some accounts the battle of Stalingrad is the largest battle in human history, although that unfortunate status is not unchallenged, and therefore it isn't surprising that the battle would be the subject of a variety of films, not all of which I've seen by any means.

Stalingrad.  1993

The best of these movies is the 1993 German production, simply called Stalingrad.  This film follows a squad of German soldiers who are of a specialist, stormtrooper, variety, joining them just as they receive a new officer to replace an officer with a severe head injury. He joins the squad in Italy just as they receive orders to ship out to the Russian front.  From there, the squad is followed over a period of months as the situation in Stalingrad deteriorates.

This film is a surprising one in some ways as it is by far the best of the ones about this battle I've seen. A German film looking at the battle from a post war German prospective as a terrible German tragedy, the film doesn't shy away from depicting German actions as barbarous, although, as is typical for German films about World War Two, it concentrates that in a fashion limited to certain individuals and it distinguishes those individuals from average Germans, a distinction that is not fully warranted by any means.   The Russians, in contrast, are generally portrayed sympathetically.

Combat scenes are highly realistic and this film scores very high in terms of material details, something that's somewhat surprising as this film predates Saving Private Ryan, but it compares favorably with it in these regards.  Artillery and armor, as well as small arms, are accurate for the armies and period, something that is not often the case for pre Saving Private Ryan films.  As in at least one other German work, German soldiers are depicted using Soviet small arms, which must be at least based on some element of truth as it seems to show up fairly frequently.

The story, I'll note, is really grim and depressing, which isn't surprising given its topic.

Enemy At The Gates

In start contrast with Stalingrad, Enemy At The Gates is flat out awful.

This is a British production that uses the title of a fairly well respected straight history on the battle which is now little read.  That's all it shares, however, with the book. This film instead follows what is supposed to be a fictionalized story of real Soviet snipers who fought in the battle.

That's a bit of a problem in and of itself, as the Soviets fictionalized the stories of their own snipers during the war for propaganda purposes, so basing a fictionalized drama on them is basically basing a story on something that's somewhat fictionalized already.  Indeed, at the time this movie was released it started a bit of a boom amongst history fans on the topic of Soviet snipers, which in turn gave rise to some re-analysis of the love story angle between the male and female snipers, showing the extent to which the story of the snipers in general was exaggerated, which isn't to say that the Soviets didn't use snipers a great deal.

The further "sniper duel" aspect this is real Hollywood schlock, even if this isn't a Hollywood film.  The German sniper is even made to be an officer, who is a super sniper. Again, while the Germans used snipers, they were enlisted men.

Just about everything I can think of in regards to the story is bad, and makes this movie worth avoiding. What about the material details?

Well, the weapons are all correct, I'll give it that. And a scene that depicts a Luftwaffe bombing run is nicely done.

Stalingrad, 2013.

My suspicion is that there is more than one Russian movie about Stalingrad, but this is the only one I've seen.  Indeed, it's only the second full length Russian movie I've ever seen in full.  So, when I saw it the other day, I had somewhat high expectations for it.

Those expectations were somewhat let down, but perhaps I was expecting too much of the film.

This movie is centered around a drama involving the story of a 19 year old girl who is the sole remaining resident of a ruined apartment building in Stalingrad.  Everyone she's known before the war in her apartment, including her family, has died in the battle and she won't leave. Early in the film the German occupied apartment changes hands and we're introduced to five Soviet fighting men who strive (with other Soviet soldiers at first) to retain possession of the building from the German forces that have been pushed out. As the movie progresses, all five of the Soviet fighters develop strong attachments to the girl.

That may seem odd, and odder yet the film actually commences in modern Japan, where an elderly Russian man is a on a crew seeking to rescue stranded German girls from the rubble of a building brought down by the recent tsunami.  In this we learn that the Russian man has "five fathers", and as the story develops it becomes apparent that the five Russian fighting men, four soldiers and one sailor (the Soviets did use sailors as infantry on occasion, and the film is accurate in those regards) are his "fathers" (with one being his actual father).

Added into this mix, a subplot involves a German officer who pays his attention to a Russian woman, against her will, and then by force, with that subplot developing into a really odd love story.

None of this sounds, of course, like a war movie, but it is, and during the film the Russians fight desperately against the more numerous Germans.  Early in the film the fighting is in fact spectacular, with some special effects that are truly dramatic.

As a story, this tale is oddly Russian.  It's not a bad story, it's just sort of peculiar.  The subplot is extremely odd from our prospective, as the concept of physical force giving rise to a love story would be regarded as repellent by nearly any modern western audience.

Departing from there, in terms of material details, the film isn't too bad, although it falls in this are somewhere between the best materially accurate films of the 1970s and Saving Private Ryan. All the weapons are correct or nearly so. This movie also includes an offhand example of German troops using Russian equipment, so that shows up again. An effort to make replica Panzerkampfwagen IVs isn't too bad, if not entirely successful.  Use of the weapons, however, is highly exaggerated with some weapon performance being silly.  

In regards to historical accuracy and portrayal of the armies, a much poorer job was done.  On some things, the movie is surprisingly accurate.  The barbarity of the Soviet army is accurately and surprisingly portrayed.  In one scene, one of the "fathers" has a sailor shot simply because the sailor is indicating he's going to return to the rear.  That is pretty accurate.  In another, another "father" shoots the German officer's female love interest in the head, which again, is pretty indicative of how Soviet troops generally regarded things.  On the other hand, the Soviet soldiers are impossibly capable. The Germans are portrayed with varying degrees of evil intent, which isn't surprising, but the tolerance shown by a senior officer for his junior's dalliance is way off the mark in the way portrayed, and would probably have resulted in the junior's court martial.  Chances are the woman who that officer is interested in would have met with a bad end way before she did as well.

On a somewhat interesting note, the Russianess of the film is demonstrated not only in the story line, but in the way it is portrayed.  Less blood and gore is shown than in American films, even though the film is very violent.  In these regards, it is probably actually more accurate than American movies, which tend to be overboard in that aspect.  However, almost all of the male female contact is merely suggested.  There's some scenes in which this isn't entirely true, but only barely, and the film recalls American movies of the 50s and 60s in this fashion.  A little more, but not a lot more, is shown than was shown, for example, in From Here To Eternity.  This harkens back to Soviet production values, in which such portrayals just weren't done, but it also is refreshing in that it takes more skill to suggest something than to just exploit it.

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