'In Stalingrad, even broken tanks shoot back at Krauts!'
The film Stalingrad, released here last year, is not a comprehensive look at that World War 2 battle. It focuses on a struggle over a particular building. The Nazis need it to gain a foothold on the river, so they push on, and the Soviets naturally are trying to hold it to keep that from happening. The Soviets are outnumbered, under-equipped, and a mishmash of whatever men managed to make it across the river alive during the initial assault to take this side of the bank. The Nazis are hamstrung by the typical stuffed shirt Lt. Colonel, and a Captain who spends as much of his time as possible with a Russian woman who reminds him of his wife. While his affections might provide her with food, they certainly don't make her popular with the other civilians holding on in the rubble.
The main gist of the film is that when the Soviets retook that building, they found a young woman, Katya, and since it is her home, she stays there, and the soldiers come to look after her, 5 of them in particular who were part of the same unit, led by Captain Gromov. Katya was pregnant (because the Nazis assaulted her while they had control of the building), and she raised her son after the war on the story of his '5 fathers', which he is relating, decades later, to a woman trapped in the rubble of some huge accident to keep her calm while rescue crews get her out. I actually turned the movie on during that opening framing sequence, and got really confused for a minute.
There are a lot of little scenes, Katya interacting with the 5 guys in different ways. Conversations, teasing, one of them offering to teach her to shoot. And these sequences usually end with Katya's boy doing a voiceover description of that soldier's life before the war, or what's happened to his loved ones since the war started. And, because this is Russia we're talking about, and Russia in World War 2 specifically, what's happened to their loved ones is always terrible. Always. The overwhelming impression is most of these guys would have to start all over again after the war, because there won't be anything to come back to. Which is a different direction from what you see in American war pictures typically. Since the fighting wasn't happening here, there's very much a sense that everything the soldiers left behind is still waiting for them at home, and it's a question of whether they'll make it back. With the Soviets, the war was right there, their families were being attacked and killed all the time, so the idea they grab on to anyone that seems worth protecting - in this case Katya - makes a lot of sense.
I'm still not sure it succeeds at fleshing out the soldiers past sort of cliched stock roles, but the film does (or the cast themselves) do manage to build a sense of being a real group. They work together readily on some things, but in other ways, they see things very differently, and it leads to some arguments as things progress. I was still more interested in the lives of the Russian civilians. They wouldn't leave because it's their home, even if they could get killed at any moment by either side. They adapt as much as possible. They aren't particularly impressed by Soviet soldiers (who they blame for losing the city in the first place), and certainly aren't going to let them stand in the way of going on about their jobs. They don't openly fight the Nazis, but anyone they see as collaborating is in for some bad times. I felt sorrier for that young woman than anyone else in the film. She's just trying to survive, and if anything, Captain Kahn's obsession with her and what she represents probably made him a less effective officer. He was more concerned with saving her than his men or accomplishing his job.
The work on the settings, the shot up buildings, that was high quality. There's a scene early of the Soviets getting on boats to cross the river, and the far bank is lit up like it's all burning. So they're heading towards an inferno. Within a few minutes, they are walking through an inferno, because some fuel tanks blew up. I don't know that the fighting was terribly realistic, though there's a sense of chaos to the battles inside the apartment building that feels right. That you could get surprised by two other guys crashing through a wall. That said, I'm not sure you can bank an artillery shell off a busted tank so you can hit a gun emplacement around a corner. But what the heck, it looked cool.
It isn't a great film, but I like the zoomed in focus on the film. On the History Channel (back when it wasn't airing stupid bullshit about aliens) it would have been all about Stalingrad as this major turning point in the overall war, and there's certainly an aspect of that on the German side here, with their focus on the idea that if they can secure this side of the river, then they can keep going straight on to India. But on the Soviet side, it's about holding one building, and for a few guys, about protecting this one woman who has already survived a lot, and about the guys trying to do that.