Joseph Vilsmaler’s epic war film “Stalingrad” goes about as far as a movie can go in depicting modern warfare as a stomach-turning form of mass slaughter. The $14 million German movie dwells so intently on war’s carnage that it inadvertently points up the limits of cinematic gruesomeness. As realistically as it may portray shooting and maiming, a movie can’t convey the smells, tastes and physical agonies of the killing fields.
The film’s most harrowing scene, set in a medical unit, shows scores of grimy, blood-spattered soldiers sprawled over one another, writhing and screaming in agony. Almost as grim is a sequence set in an underground sewer system where soldiers thrash through the polluted waters, and a corpse is shown being nibbled at by a rat.
The siege of Stalingrad, in which Soviet forces successfully held back the German army, began in September 1942, and continued for four months, with casualties on both sides numbering around 1.5 million. Like Napoleon’s army 130 years earlier, the invaders were defeated as much by the arrival of the harsh Russian winter as by armed resistance. The battle proved to be a major turning point in World War II. The movie blames the defeat on Hitler’s hubris and on an arrogant German high command that is portrayed as mercilessly as in a Hollywood propaganda film of World War II.
“Stalingrad” is so determined to show the horrors of war that it doesn’t devote quite enough time to its major characters, members of a German unit that is transferred from North Africa to Russia after a brief stay on the Italian Riviera. These characters represent a familiar cross-section of types found in a Hollywood war film.
Thomas Kretschmann, a German actor with a resemblance to Tom Cruise, plays Hans von Witzland, an aristocratic young lieutenant whose ideals of gentlemanly conduct during war are quickly dashed. His comrades in arms include a scared young innocent (Sebastian Rudolph) who toughens up, a cynical everyman (Dominique Horwitz), and a daredevil (Jochen Nichel).
While these largely sympathetic characters go through the motions of allegiance to the German cause, none are rabid Nazis. They are shown to be helpless pawns of egotistical monsters who feast on elegant cuisine and fine wine while their troops nearly starve. If soldiers’ basic goodness seems a little too good to be true, their basic decency supports the film’s antiwar message.
“Stalingrad” has some of the most virtuosic battle scenes to be found in a modern war film. An early sequence in a factory and warehouse complex, where soldiers with guns and flame throwers inch their way through a jungle of crumbling masonry, is as nightmarish as anything in “Apocalypse Now!” or “Platoon.”
In the most spectacular outdoor sequence, a battalion of Soviet tanks rumbles across a snowy landscape in which Germans, nearly frozen in their foxholes, stand them off with hand grenades and fierce man-to-man combat. Just as memorable is a scene of mass panic as hundreds of wounded desperately struggle to board the last plane to leave Stalingrad for Germany.
If “Stalingrad” powerfully underscores the adage that war is hell, it offers its own particular take on that truism. Long before the battle of Stalingrad is finished, the soldiers find themselves surrounded by absolute chaos and social breakdown that is as frightening in its way as the actual carnage.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “STALINGRAD” Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Joseph Vilsmaler, starring Thomas Kretschmann, Sebastian Rudolph, Dominique Horwitz Rating: Not rated