Every year around Remembrance Day weekend, I usually pick a war-related film to watch. This year, I decided to watch the 2013 Russian film Stalingrad, which is about the eponymous battle that lasted six months 1942-43, turning the tide of the Second World War (or the Great Patriotic War, as it is known in the former Soviet Union). The Battle of Stalingrad tops many lists about WWII battles: it was one of the bloodiest (over 2 million dead, including civilians); it was one of the longest, considering it was really only over one city; and it was one of the most important in terms of how the war would turn out.
As someone from North America, I don’t have much connection to the battle. It certainly hasn’t been as romanticized as other battles – the Battle of Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic, the D-Day invasions, etc. Despite being highly influential, and recognised as such at the time, it was largely forgotten since it didn’t involve any North American or Western European troops. However, having seen a lot of WWII films from American or British filmmakers, I was interested in seeing a modern Russian film. Would it be as propagandistic as Saving Private Ryan or Pearl Harbor and the like? (My answer would be “No, not as much.”)
To be clear, the armies fighting at Stalingrad were fighting for two bloodthirsty and ruthless dictators, and this film makes that somewhat apparent. The Soviets are the heroes because a) they are defending their homeland; b) they are the underdogs in terms of military strength; and c) they are not of the opinion that there are inferior races that need to be subjugated or eliminated. (And of course the fact that it is a Russian film.) Because of how brutal the war has been, they are less fighting for ideals and more for simple survival. Barring survival, they are trying to take out as many of the enemy as they can before dying.
What is haunting about the film – particularly the opening sequence and several other similar sequences throughout – is that it has some qualities that reminded me of a video game, but it was indeed based largely on fact. The battle really was that brutal, and the Soviet soldiers in particular were told to keep advancing regardless of obstacles. By the middle of the six-month battle (not that they knew it was the middle at the time), no one really thought that they would get out of the city alive.
Which is a problem if you’re a civilian who happens to live in the city. The filmmakers take pains to show how dismal life was for surviving civilians: starvation, brutal treatment by the enemy, lack of water, high likelihood of being caught in the crossfire, and loss of community.
There was a lot of criticism about this film, namely that it focused too much on a small group of characters in a short window of time. However, I needed that. Otherwise, the film would have indeed amounted to nothing but a video game. One needs to have some humanity behind the people who are trying not to die.
The plot is fairly straightforward: a small band of Soviet soldiers take control of a semi-bombed-out apartment building on the Nazi-occupied side of the river, and they attempt to hold the building until Soviets can make a crossing and attack. Inside the building, they discover a young woman who used to live in the apartment and whose family and neighbours have all been killed. Over the course of three days, the woman brings out their humanity and they bring her out of her frightened shell-shock. There is some concern that the men have become too focused on protecting her, but she is determined to help them fight.
All of the characters are fairly archetypal, although they do have individual personalities. However, this film is not about being original or inventive. The characters are supposed to be archetypal. This is how they stand for all of the soldiers and civilians of Stalingrad, trying to retain their humanity, fulfill their duty, and survive as long as possible. Yes, they only portrayed a small portion of a large battle, but how else were they to depict it without having it turn into a video game or a melodrama?
One beautiful storytelling device that they used was a voiceover narrator who was telling the story in 2011; while we thus knew that at least one character would survive (and exactly who it would be, since the narration told us), the point was not about suspense. The narrator was able to fill in gaps in the story and thus we avoided having too much expository dialogue within the film itself. The narrator filled us in on the individual soldiers’ backgrounds, as well as that of the young woman, with the assumption that the soldiers discussed it off-camera. The background gave context to the characters’ motivations and actions. It also allowed for us to see bombed out ruins while the narrator described the ruins’ former inhabitants in all of their living glory. That scene alone was heartbreaking and poetic – and worth watching the film for, in my opinion.
Simply put, war is hellish. Stalingrad showed just how hellish it was. This isn’t about a plucky band of heroes destroying the big bad invaders. This is about trying to stay alive and not totally give in to the hellishness.
At the end of the film, the narrator reminds the audience that millions died in the hope that future generations would never have to face war like they did. It is worth remembering that we don’t want to go through that again. It is easy to feel removed from that type of hellish warfare when your primary narrative of the World Wars is “soldiers went away to fight”. They had to go somewhere, and that somewhere had people living in it.
And in terms of how the Second World War went, Stalingrad destroyed the Nazi momentum and eliminated their European allies, making the North African campaign, the invasion of Italy, and the Normandy landings possible. Stalingrad was not just about the Soviet Union, but about all of Europe. The rest of the twentieth century might otherwise have gone very differently.
That’s not propaganda – the film never even claims that, being strictly about the Soviet experience. That is simply how the war went.