The steamroller that is Fyodor Bondarchuk’s 3D extravaganza “Stalingrad,” bulldozing its way through B.O. records in Russia and China, is big, loud and full of explosions. It’s also awash in stereotypes, and lacks any characterization more than a millimeter thick. Set during the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942, the pic focuses on a handful of Soviet soldiers holding off Nazis in the city’s central square, with a couple of dames tossed in for sentiment. Russia’s foreign-language film Oscar entry and the first Imax 3D movie released in the Motherland, “Stalingrad” is unlikely to do more than middling biz in the Eurozone.
The Battle of Stalingrad, sometimes called the bloodiest single battle on record, has been cinematic fodder for decades, most recently in 2001’s “Enemy at the Gates.” Scripters Ilya Tilkin and Sergey Snezhkin choose to concentrate on a limited period in a small geographic area; it’s one of their few wise decisions, as the absence of anything other than a regurgitated skeleton plot, with negligible development, hamstrings the entire effort. Especially clumsy is a bookending device, set in the present with Russian emergency aid workers rescuing German teens from the consequences of a Japanese earthquake, which reveals a hesitant understanding of narrative construction.
The purpose of this framing element is to allow the narrator, Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov), to keep up the trapped teens’ spirits by telling them how he happened to have five fathers. Cut to Stalingrad in the autumn of 1942, with an impressive shot of the Volga River and the city aflame in the distance. The Nazis blow up the fuel supply to hamper Soviet troop movements, and soon there’s a standoff between the German occupiers and a small group of Russians holed up in an apartment building near German command.
The sadistic Nazi colonel (Heiner Lauterbach) comes straight out of central casting, shouting about barbarians and people less fastidious than himself; toward the pic’s end, when he screams, “You are a disgrace to the entire Wehrmacht!”, the mind races between Monty Python and “Hogan’s Heroes” for a suitable comparison, except that here it’s not meant to evoke laughs. His invective is addressed to the more honorable Capt. Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann), from a noble Prussian family (natch).
They and their comrades are up against five Russian soldiers headquartered in the scenically distressed apartment of 18-year-old Katya (Maria Smolnikova), bravely carrying on despite the loss of her family and the destruction all around. The five are largely interchangeable at first, but then the narrator conveniently offers just enough details to provide a smidgen of background for each. Katya becomes their mascot, generating feelings both sisterly and romantic.
Capt. Kahn also has a woman of his own, Masha (Yana Studilina), a quiet blonde whom he basically rapes (they have no language in common) but then falls in love with, and he does all he can to shield her from harm. She’s more diffident, hesitantly liking the guy and grateful for his protection, yet knowing she’ll be branded a collaborator should the Nazis pull out. While it’s not the most original plot strand, it at least hints at a vague psychological complexity that’s otherwise absent.
In any event, the characters are mere filler for the main point of “Stalingrad”: detonations and a hefty dollop of rah-rah patriotism. Screaming soldiers are set on fire, buildings are blown up, planes crash. Assaults are filmed in ubiquitous slow-mo to better register the way bodies are thrown into the air. It’s all rather confusing, actually, since the monochromatic tonalities and weak script, lacking in any comprehensible battle strategy, tend to meld the two sides together.
Somehow Kretschmann manages to keep a straight face when Kahn tells Masha, “I came here as a soldier. You made me a beast.” In this instance it sounds just as bad in German, though the English subtitles on the print viewed are full of incomprehensible lines or howlers, trying for period flavor with words like “Fritz” and “Heinie,” but then having an apologetic soldier say, “My bad.” (Considerably improved English-language subtitles have already been prepared for the film’s future festival and awards screenings.)
Visuals are the usual steely gray, relieved only by red-orange flames; the diet of coldly neutral colors makes for tiring viewing, not helped by unimaginative use of 3D. Praise should go, however, to the design team, whose striking set, along with the visual-effects crew, almost certainly consumed much of the $30 million budget. The score by Angelo Badalamenti shifts from bombastic to saccharine, no doubt reflecting the filmmakers’ wishes.