Stalingrad is the highest grossing movie in Russian history and its Doctor-Zhivago-meets-Call-of-Duty 3D sensibility arrives in U.S. IMAX theaters this weekend.
Released here on the heels of a successful (and terrorism-free) Winter Olympics in Sochi, Stalingrad (directed by longtime Putin supporter Fyodr Bondarchuk) aims to inspire national pride for the Soviet army's stand against Hitler's army in 1942-1943. That successful defense of Stalingrad is absolutely one of the turning points in the war and critical to the eventual Allied victory.
Bondarchuk has forthright in saying that his goal was to make a Russian version of Band of Brothers. This movie is loosely based on the story of Sgt. Yakov Pavlov and a rifle platoon that successfully held an apartment building for 58 days against a Nazi siege.
The movie was made for $30 million and every cent must have made it onto the screen. The movie looks like a big-budget Hollywood CGI production. There's so much computer-generated imagery that this big chunks of the movie suggest what Call of Duty might look like when we get the next-generation horsepower of a PlayStation 5 sometime around 2017.
The story is framed by a Russian rescue mission to Japan after the 2011 tsunami. A group of German students are trapped under a collapsed building and a Russian doctor tells them the story of his mother's insistence in staying in her apartment building after the Nazi invasion and the "five fathers" who defended her home. The movie's big reveal will be which one of the soldiers she falls in love with before he fathers her child. There's a moderately sympathetic Nazi captain who has a relationship with a Russian woman. In the end, the doctor is a straight-up framing device: there's no tension as to whether the Germans will be rescued. We don't see the Japanese setting again until the end when the students are safe.
Since this is a Russian movie, there's a lot of emphasis on personal sacrifice and almost everyone dies at the end. Still, after generations of history that tell us the shocking numbers of casualties Stalin was willing to endure to defeat Hitler, it's kind of a shock to see those faceless troops portrayed as individual personalities on screen.
The movie's dialog is Russian and German (with a smattering of Japanese), so everything's got subtitles. That's certainly going to limit the audience here. And, even though this was Russia's (unsuccsessful) submission for the Best Foreign Film nomination, Stalingrad isn't going to appeal to an art house crowd: it's a Hollywood-style war movie with a pro-Russia bent.
We've spent the last two weeks hearing how Vladimir Putin wanted the Sochi Olympics to generate respect for the Russian people. Consider Stalingrad another volley in that campaign.