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The Warsaw Voice » World of Movies » December 19, 2013
Film review
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December 19, 2013   
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The Battle of Stalingrad, one of the bloodiest during World War II, claimed one-and-a-half million lives and was a key factor in halting the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Filmmakers have long been drawn to the battle as subject matter. Enemy at the Gates, a 2001 blockbuster by Jean-Jacques Annaud, cost $68 million to make and remains the most expensive movie in Britain’s filmmaking history. Boasting an A-list cast with the likes of Jude Law, Ed Harris, Joseph Fiennes, Bob Hoskins and Rachel Weisz, Enemy at the Gates was moderately successful at depicting the bloodbath from the point of view of both the Russians and the Germans, building the plot around a deadly confrontation between two snipers from the opposing armies.

Eight years before Annaud, Germany’s Joseph Vilsmaier directed Stalingrad, which depicted the battle through the eyes of a German officer. The main role went to Thomas Kretschmann, an East German-born actor known from movies set during World War II such as Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie, Oliver Hirschgiebel’s Downfall, and U-571 by Jonathan Mostow. Kretschmann also plays the main German character in the new Stalingrad, a $30-million effort directed by Russia’s Fyodor Bondarchuk and chosen by Russia as the country’s Oscar candidate in the Best Foreign Language Film category. The producers describe Stalingrad as the first Russian movie to be shot entirely in 3D and the first IMAX-format production by a non-American studio. Visually, the film is impressive. The problem is that at times it feels more like an adaptation of a comic book than a serious war movie.

Bondarchuk, 46, has filmmaking in his blood—his father was Russian director Sergey Bondarchuk, whose adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace won an Oscar in 1969. Bondarchuk Jr. impressed audiences in 2005 with his debut, 9th Company, a war movie set during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. To this day, 9th Company remains the most commercially successful Russian film ever. In the closing scenes, the last survivors of the titular 9th Company fight a hopeless battle against hundreds of Mujahideen atop a hill, without any means of calling for backup. Bondarchuk includes a similar scene in Stalingrad, where six Soviet soldiers are shown defending a building against the German onslaught. Chaos-stricken Stalingrad is also the setting for a convoluted romantic sub-plot involving the main characters and the story of two women struggling to survive in an almost completely destroyed city. One of them becomes the unlikely object of a German officer’s affections.

It comes as no surprise that the film shows World War II and the Battle of Stalingrad from the Russian point of view only. No place here for any degree of objectivity. What you get instead is a big dose of patriotic, Hollywood-style pathos, further intensified by the tone of the off-screen narrator. These are standard, tried-and-tested filmmakers’ devices and if you weren’t expecting anything more ambitious you won’t be disappointed.
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