HTS Overall Score:86
In 1942, the Nazi Wehrmacht laid siege to the industrial Russian city of Stalingrad. A terribly bloody battle raged for nearly five months, resulting in a loss of life that ranks among the worst in human conflict. By some counts, the battle killed nearly two million soldiers and civilians. The Russians stubbornly fought their way to a decisive victory that’s widely viewed as a crucial turning point in the Allied effort to defeat the Germans.
With a title like Stalingrad (and cover art featuring soldiers amidst destruction), one might assume it’s a film documenting key battles to regain control of the strategically situated Russian city; perhaps something similar to Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge to Far? Not to douse any flames, but the reality is: not quite. Stalingrad is a spastic film injected full of national pride, meant to pay homage to the bravery of Stalingradians and the soldiers that fought to save the city from Nazi occupation. It’s also a soapbox used to propagate Russian ideology and social character. Director Fedor Bondarchuk pulled just about every trick out of his movie-making bag to make it an epic affair. Green screens cast aside, his sprawling war-torn city set was handmade and physically tattered. He rolled-out hundreds of extras and pumped snow-like black ash into the air by the second. And he resorted to using dramatic slow motion action sequences with accentuated sprays of blood to dramatize the grit of battle...enough to make Michael Bey and Zack Snyder jealous.
Unfortunately, Bondarchuk neglected a most important theatrical detail: the story, itself.
The film is a disjointed affair awkwardly bookended by a scene from the rubble of a collapsed building following the 2011 earthquake in Japan. There we are introduced to the film’s narrator and a group of World War II soldiers he calls “the five fathers.” Not to belabor the point, but using this set-up as the opening scene to a film about the defense of Stalingrad is a tad confusing and odd, and is merely a precursor to several hours of choppy storytelling.
Following the visit to the Japanese rubble, the film takes us back to 1942 and the shores of the Volga River where Russian forces are preparing to advance on Stalingrad. Panicked Nazi’s ignite giant fuel dumps, dousing the Russian troops with a flaming mixture of fire and gas. Determined to battle to their fiery deaths, the troops fight till the bitter end, and are mercilessly mowed down by Nazi forces. Amid the fighting, a small band of Russian soldiers led by Kaptain Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov) breaks through enemy lines and manages to seize a strategic building. Inside they find a teenage girl named Katya (Mariya Smoinikova), an orphaned survivor of the war and one of the film’s center pieces. She becomes an inspiration for the soldiers, who also view her as an object of desire.
Outside of the Russian occupied building are clans of citizens living amongst German troops. There we find Masha (Yanina Studilina), an appealing young woman that catches the eye of a Nazi commander named Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann) who has been tasked with retaking the Russian occupied building. He sees his late wife in Masha’s likeness and falls in love with her. This affair doesn’t play well either side of the conflict; Russian soldiers grow to hate her and German commanders mock Kahn and his choice of women.
The film’s brightest moments are its epic battle sequences, which rival scenes from American war film favorites such Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan. Pumped full of vigor and over-the-top action, they’re extremely well choreographed and amount to total eye candy. If Bondarchuk had stayed focused on retelling battleground history, Stalingrad would have found a place among the great war epics. But Bondarchuk was looking to make a greater social statement. He flips between war and the juxtaposed love stories involving the two women, and flops to mundane details and side stories about each of the Russian soldiers in the occupied building. The result is an aimless affair that frequently feels rushed (despite the film’s overall two hour plus running time), scene driven, and incomplete.
Stalingrad was originally released in IMAX and IMAX 3D, and the Blu-ray box comes complete with a 3D Blu-ray version of the film (not reviewed). The release’s extras are pitifully thin, featuring one “making of” segment that shows some impressive behind the scenes footage. Other than that, there’s nothing, which is unfortunate. The release would have benefited from in depth historical documentation and original battleground footage.
R for sequences of war violence.
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/news/sg4.jpg[/img]Sony Pictures brings Stalingrad to Blu-ray courtesy of a flawless MPEG-4 AVC hi-def transfer in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. With a dearth of issues to nit-pick, Stalingrad is a feast for the eyes and a sight to behold. The foundation of the presentation is a bland color palate that has a greenish tilt. Red and oranges, however, roam freely and burn brilliantly in tantalizingly rich mixtures within explosions and bursts of fire. Skin tones are natural and life like. Contrast is exemplary, creating a rich environment of charred collateral strewn across darkened sets. Fine details are simply stunning, including flecks of dirt and grime on the soldiers’ war torn faces, visible threads on tattered uniforms, battle ground debris, ever present dust and ash colliding with light, and charred and distressed walls of bombed-out buildings. Shadow detail is equal to the task, revealing amazing amounts of visual detail amongst the many dark scenes of the film.
The film’s image is devoid of banding or blocking, despite complex scenes with shadows and tricky lighting. It’s easy to give Stalingrad five stars for an impeccable visual presentation; enthusiasts will find plenty of demo worthy material to showoff projector based and large display systems.
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/news//sg3.jpg[/img]Stalingrad features three different DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio tracks: English, French, and Russian. For obvious reasons, the native Russian version is the most natural sounding in the dialog department. While the English version is completely serviceable with voice-overs that are reasonably well inserted, it doesn't carry the finer details of the actors’ verbal performances; urgency, pain, fear, and the delicateness of a whispers simply sound more convincing in the native Russian track. Nevertheless, for those of you adverse to subtitles, the English version is adequate for an enjoyable theatrical experience.
Dialog aside, Stalingrad’s audio presentation is an auditory assault that places you smack in the middle of war. It features rich surround details that deliver the ambiance of the war’s setting, including never ending thuds and rumbles, and rattles and claps, of distant battles, the echos of sounds reverberating through the hollow war torn buildings, the clanking of soldiers’ gear, howling winds through empty stairwells, water dripping from damaged pipes, and the constant sounds of ash as it falls from the sky. Dynamic action, such as gun fire and bullets whizzing about, appear throughout the soundstage in all directions. Sound movement (such as planes flying over head) is matched with impeccable directionality. This all goes without mentioning the film’s chest pounding LFE, which is nuanced and abundant, mercilessly paired with explosions, the rumble of tanks, and other impactful sounds of war. In all, Stalingrad goes beyond the call of duty, bringing the battle right to your home theater.
• The Making of Stalingrad
Lengthy in its own right, Stalingrad is a film that would have been better served as a five or six hour long mini-series. Director Bondarchuk simply tries to accomplish too much with too little time, leaving us with hollow character development and questionable emotional plot progressions. He certainly nails the chaos of war with impeccably executed battle scenes...it's the nationalistic and social agenda that feels neglected. Perhaps some of the issue rests in the translation of dialog from Russian to English (there are certainly times when the English dialog is even different than the provided English subtitles). But the majority of the problem is Bondarchuk’s attempt to cram too much into a finite amount of time, causing the development of emotion and attachment between characters to be unnatural.
Nevertheless, Stalingrad is a film that enthusiasts should add to their short list. It’s chalk full of demo worthy audio and video moments, with stunning battle visuals and incredibly dynamic audio to match. These, alone, make Stalingrad a recommended watch, despite it’s disjointed and crammed presentation.
Starring: Mariya Smolnikova, Yanina Studilina, Pyotr Fyodorov
Directed by: Fedor Bondarchuk
Written by: Sergey Snezhkin, Ilya Tilkin
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, French: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Russian: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Studio: Sony Pictures
Runtime: 131 minutes
Blu-Ray Release Date: May 13, 2014
Buy Stalingrad on Blu-ray at Amazon
Recommendation: Watch It!