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Destiny at the Gates

Stalingrad (2014)

Columbia Pictures

The use of Imax 3-D is still something of a gimmick to get us into the cinema instead of watching movies on ever smaller personal screens. It is best used to immerse us into the world of the story with sensory overload. A great deal depends on the choice of the world. The one in "Stalingrad" is one of the more unusual ones — at least to non-Russian audiences — in recent memory.

The main body of the film is an extended flashback, told as a distraction by a German-speaking Russian disaster worker to five German college student trapped by the Fukushima earthquake. As a distraction, this certainly works; as narrative setup, not so much. The main story itself is loosely based on real events in the gruesome World War II battle of Stalingrad, where a strategically located apartment building became almost the whole focus of the eastern front. In this telling, six Russian soldiers are holed up to defend the building at all costs, with an array of Nazis outside. But there are also some Russian civilians still in the building, including the teenage Katya (Maria Smolnikova) who, the narrator tells us early on, is his mother.

Framing the deadliest battle of the Second World War — in which 1.2 million people died — as an extended version of "The Dating Game" is a novel technique and it just about works. As with "Saving Private Ryan," shrinking the focus to a small, diverse and clichéd group of soldiers enables the human cost to be felt. But in contrast of the apartment building's protection of Katya, there is also the troubling story of Masha (Yana Studilina), who squats in a nearby basement and has the misfortune to resemble the Nazi captain’s (Thomas Kretschmann) dead wife. This subplot, which does not logically fit into the narration but never mind, handles a difficult and violent subject without exploiting the actress, something nowadays unheard of in Hollywood cinema.

For "Stalingrad" is the first Russian movie shot entirely in 3-D. It has a slightly lighter heart than the "Night Watch" trilogy, but director Fydor Bondarchuk still brings the stuff of nightmares. There's an outstanding sequence with a flamethrower where the full power of the 3-D comes into play. This is also the case early on where some Russian soldiers who were caught in an explosion change machine-gun placements as they burn to death. Such a powerful image overshadows the rest of the film, with its easily guessed love story and predictable ending. But Pyotr Fyodorov (as the clever captain of the Russians) and Alexey Barabash (as the classical singer turned silent special-ops cutthroat) are outstanding and handsome enough for old Hollywood. The movie also looks wonderful; Sergei Ivanov’s sets of the ruined apartment building and the squares outside are fantastic and cinematographer Maksim Osadchiy makes full use of the opportunities 3-D offers. "Stalingrad" manages to achieve the balance between realistic horror and watchability.


Opens on Feb. 21 in Britain and on Feb. 28 in the United States.

Directed by Fedor Bondarchuk; written by Ilya Tilkin and Sergey Snezhkin, based on the novel by “Life and Fate” by Vasily Grossman; director of photography, Maxim Osadchiy; edited by Igor Litoninskiy; music by Angelo Badalamenti; production design by Sergey Ivanov; costumes by Tatyana Patrakhaltseva; visual effects supervisor, Arman Yahin; produced by Alexander Rodnyansky, Anton Zlatopolskiy, Dmitry Rudovskiy and Sergey Melkumov; released by Columbia Pictures. In Russian and German, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes. This film is rated 15 by B.B.F.C. and R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Mariya Smolnikova (Katya), Yanina Studilina (Masha), Petr Fedorov (Gromov), Thomas Kretschmann (Captain Kahn), Sergey Bondarchuk (Astakhov), Dmitry Lisenkov (Chvanov), Andrey Smolyakov (Polyakov), Aleksey Barabash (Nikiforov), Oleg Volku (Krasnov) and Heiner Lauterbach (Heinz).


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