1942.  With the superior Nazi forces rolling through Russia, the besieged city of Stalingrad will see the fate of the world decided as the beleaguered Soviet forces throw everything they have at the German invaders in a ferocious attempt to turn the tide of the war while, amidst the ruins of the once great city, a mismatched ragbag group of Russian heroes will risk everything in order to protect an innocent teenage girl. 

Visually stunning and presented in thundering, eye-popping, immersive IMAX 3D, Stalingrad is about as subtle as a Cossack dancer’s boot toeing your nutsack into your throat while humming the Tetris theme.  A huge hit in it’s homeland, director Fyodor Bondarchuk eschews the grittier feel of 2005’s 9th Company, his Soviet War in Afghanistan movie, in favour of wildly over the top action, his Russian World War 2 epic less concerned with history than borrowing Zack Snyder’s playbook for a spot of Putinesque propaganda that plays so fast and loose with the facts you’ll think the scriptwriter produced the script by observing a couple of eight-year-olds recreate their favourite bits from Saving Private Ryan with Action Men and writing everything down verbatim.  It also features so much slo-mo it’s reminiscent of trying to play Medal Of Honour on smack. 

Bookended by scenes of the post-2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami rescue effort which see a largely unseen middle aged Russian rescue worker recount his mother’s experiences during the Battle of Stalingrad and how he came to have “five fathers” (which makes him sound a little like Freddy Krueger, bastard son of 100 maniacs) to a trapped teenage girl, buried beneath tons of masonry (nothing like a captive audience), the film begins proper with a patriotic army of Russians paddling across the Volga and storming the German forces on the opposing bank who promptly blow the heroic peasants up, set fire to them and machine gun them in waves, forcing them to retreat. 

Trapped behind enemy lines, a small, ragged, stereotypical band of brothers, led by Captain Gromov (Colin Farrell-alike Pyotr Fyodorov) and consisting of a mute opera singer, a psychopathic sniper, a naïve young artillery officer, a grizzled veteran and a couple of disposable sailors, capture a strategically valuable building from which they can slow the Nazi advance.  Cut off and running low on ammunition, they discover a traumatised 18-year-old girl, Katya (Mariya Smolnikova) in the ruins whose presence affects each man differently, giving them something to fight and die for, and they resolve to protect her.   

In a building on the other side of the ruined square however the fundamentally decent, world weary German Captain Kahn (Daniel Craig-alike Thomas Kretschmann) is preparing his men to assault the Russian outpost.  Sick of the war and what it’s made him become, Kahn has fallen in love with Masha (Yanina Studilina) a beautiful Russian girl, ostracised by her own people for their not entirely consensual relationship.  As the German’s launch an overwhelming attack, Gromov and his men are forced to make a desperate, doomed last stand. 

The bloodiest battle in human history may not immediately spring to mind as the perfect backdrop for a doomed romance, let alone two, but it’s no stranger than the icy sinking of an ocean liner and, while the script is far from subtle with all the Germans (bar Kretschmann) evil (they burn innocent non-Jews just for looking, well, a bit Jewy!) and his heroes caricatured stereotypes of heroic Russian manhood with the prim Katya the living embodiment of the Mother Russia they must fight and die for, Bondarchuk knows his way around an action scene and keeps the lumbering epic nimble.  I can’t help but feel however that I may have missed the point of the film as the only characters I had any real sympathy for were not the heroic Russians but Kretshmann’s tortured German officer and Studilina’s Masha, their nuanced performances lending their doomed romance a level of sensitivity and engagement that’s largely absent from the rest of the film as their relationship moves believably from borderline rape to pragmatic love.   

When the legend becomes fact, you print the legend according to John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  Overblown and visceral with some questionable politics, Stalingrad is no Cross Of Iron but it’s an enjoyably ambitious, bombastic piece of movie mythmaking that never lets the facts get in the way of its legend.

VERDICT: [rating=3]

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