Stalingrad is one of the finest Russian film that could surpass the American’s – Saving Private Ryan

World War II is not merely a main theme of academic subjects. It is also the favorite theme of many British and American films. And for 70 years since the Second World War, the stories of Allied soldiers rushing to save the world against the Nazis have been popular even garnering awards.

Russian directors, this time, steal the spot light with their own version of the war. But while scenes in the movies are directed, rehearsed and artificially simulated, the real war was a real carnage. A woman soldier fancied the war to be a scene of fire, crying children, scampering cats but when she got to Stalingrad, the sight was worse. Russians consider Stalingrad one of the most famous battle in their history. The 3D film inspired by the battle is one of biggest box office hits in the country of all time. With the film, audiences can get to see the war as experienced by the Russians. The three dimensional effects do well in making the war scenes including fire fights, close encounters, bombings more real life.

The scenes from the Stalingrad film make the other prior war movies such as Gladiator and Private Ryan look like child’s play. The first few scenes, for example, depicts a city burning in flames when Nazis blow up a cluster of giant oil storage tanks in highly vivid detail. The movie might come late. However, the film, as a national pride, shows the sentiment of the Russians of the World War II. President Vladimir Putin sees the film as a recovery of the nation’s reputation due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and their defeat in the Cold War. The battle for Stalingrad was very critical. It was one of the most significant episodes in World War II. The Russians bore witness to the horror of Wehrmacht doing the excellent job of destroying everything in its way. The Nazi invasion in the 1941 Operation Barbarossa resulted to the capturing of two million Soviet Army prisoners. Many of them were deliberately starved to death.     

In Britain and the United States, many of the warlords watched with forlorn eyes when the Russians would eventually raise the white flag. The Allies held their breaths until in November and December when the Red Army finally launched a counter-offensive against the Germans in Moscow which successfully pushed back the foes to the borders. However, the Nazis were pigheaded. In spring of 1942, the German forces aggressively broke Russian defenses and made their way into the heart claiming St. Petersburg, Crimea, and Caucasus. The Germans paid a high price for their invasion. The Nazi invasion of Sevastopol resulted to the deaths of 25,000 German forces and expended around 50,000 tons of artillery ammunition. The Germans who took a long time before successfully piercing through the resistance starved in enemy territory as their supply lines drew to a limit.

However, Hitler himself thought that the Russians were at the brink of their surrender with their men and supplies exhausted. Hitler’s enthusiasm grew with the success of “Operation Blue” in June when his armies successfully invaded areas of central Russia. His trusted liege, Rommel, was pursuing a successful campaign at Cairo. Meanwhile, Admiral Donitz was heading his U-boats against Allied ships. The Japanese were leading in the Pacific.

Hitler thought that he would finally have his victory. So he sent General Friedrich Paulus to lead the invasion of the city on the Volga named after Stalin. The general, a staff officer turned fighting commander, wanted to make a name for himself so he was very eager to claim victory over the Russians while another group of Nazis attack from the south to the oilfields. Meanwhile the top military henchmen of Hitler were horrified to see the Wehrmacht split their army to claim Stalingrad. The area was according to military point-of-view not strategic. Their objections to the plan fell on deaf ears. And the attack was pursued by the Fuhrer with persistence.

Josef Stalin made the same firm stand to defend the “his” city at any cost. Both sides were poised to win and the world watched with horror how the curtain opened to a brutal encounter. On September 12 of that year, the Nazis invaded Stalingrad. The Red Army then received a new order from Kremlin that says, “Not a step back… The only extenuating circumstance is death.” At the first wave of attack, the Germans launched air strikes claiming around 10,000 to 40,000 people. The casualty nearly topped the deaths during the attack in London. Bombs and shells were dropped over Stalingrad non-stop.

Stuka pilot Herbert Pabst wrote: ‘It is incomprehensible to me how people can continue to live in that hell, but the Russians are firmly established in the wreckage, in ravines, cellars, and in a chaos of twisted skeletons of factories’. General Vasily Chuikov, commanding Stalin’s 62nd Army in the city, wrote: ‘The streets of the city are dead. There is not a single green twig on the trees; everything has perished in the flames.’ The concrete masses of the city’s transport hubs and industrial plants were swiftly reduced to rubble. Each became a scene of slaughter, engraved on modern Russian legend: the grain elevator beside Number Two station; the freight station; Lazur chemical plant; Red October metal works, and so on.

The Russians initially held a perimeter 30 miles by 18, which shrank relentlessly as Paulus’s men thrust forward to within a few hundred yards of the Volga.There were around three thousand wounded Russian soldiers who were transported to the eastern part of the city every night after the attacks. Meanwhile, new soldiers reinforce the defenses and ammunition and supplies arrive to the battleground. The fight was so intense that some of the soldiers would rush to meet their foes in a hand-to-hand duel for life and country. Food and water became scarce. The surviving civilians and residents were the ones who mostly suffered the brutalities and opted to hide in the cellars.

The Russians, however, persevered willing to give a hard fight before dying and enduring amidst most difficult times. Some soldiers even described the battleground as ten times worse than hell. The film about the battle directed by Fyodor Bondarchuk was about the men who dared enter the hell on earth as both sides fought to defend Stalingrad for Hitler’s army. IMAX 3D brought to life the characters, scenes and the intense battle with their technology with the objective of bringing the audience to the same battle ground almost 70 years in November 1942.

The setting and fight scenes really depicted the horrors and brutalities of war. The audience would get the opportunity of witnessing history as if it was their first-hand experience. The director himself showed the realities of war without sparing the bloody and gruesome details. As one soldier wrote in his diary, the street of Stalingrad was littered in corpses. Even animals would flee from the battleground while only men stayed. Many critics and experts claim that some of the details of the movie were wrong. For example, the movie showed a Russian commander reprimanding one of the snipers for killing a German who was fetching water. However, the real battle for Stalingrad in 1942 spared no life who dared move.

The apartments as well as ritual persecution of the Jews depicted in the movie were also off in the details. The real Red Army also did not have any forward air control and only a few bombers at Stalingrad as opposed to what was shown on film.  But while the some details were erroneous, the successful defense of the Russians of the city was definitely bold and legendary. It was also a landmark victory against the Nazis just like D-Day landings and the Battle of Britain.

The narrator did change the course of history and the fate of Russia.

On November 19, 1942, the Russians finally devised a plan that would give them victory. Georgy Zhukov, the general who headed the defense of Stalingrad, commanded his men to encircle Paulu’s forces by maneuvering his men to a pincer movement from north and south of the city. That was Operation Uranus.

By December 21, the Germans successfully surrounded the Germans.

On December 21, spearhead units of the two Russian thrusts met, completing a perfect double envelopment. On January 31, 1943, Paulus surrendered his army to the Russians, who through the months that followed swept on triumphantly westwards. In the winter fighting of 1942-43, the Germans had lost a million men, while the Red Army now had six million soldiers under arms.At Stalingrad, when the winter ice melted on the Volga, among a host of horrors revealed by the thaw were the bodies of a Russian and a German, victims of Stalingrad, clasped in a death embrace. Seven decades later, Fyodor Bondarchuk’s memorial to their struggle cannot be called a masterpiece of cinema.

But the real-life heroes of the Red Army performed feats of courage and fortitude in 1942 no less remarkable than those so vividly depicted on the 3D screen. The film is suffused with a blend of brutality and sentimentality which has characterised the Russian  psyche for centuries.

Seeing the movie Stalingrad, now in selected British cinemas, may not give you the year’s greatest night out, but it will teach you much about how the Russian people see themselves and their wartime heritage.


Siegphyl is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE