For the first time in decades, a domestic film beat out Hollywood heavyweights to become Russia’s top-grossing movie of the year. That 2013 movie was “Stalingrad,” and it’s easy to see how it banked so many rubles. For the first Russian film shot in 3-D and released in 3-D Imax, “Stalingrad” director Fedor Bondarchuk expertly employed all the technology at his disposal to yank viewers into one of World War II’s most cataclysmic battles.
There’s just one problem: The story.
“Stalingrad” starts on the wrong foot, opening during another destructive moment: the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. It’s a weak framing device that may leave audiences wondering if they’ve stumbled into the wrong theater. But it allows one man to reminisce about the men he calls his “five fathers,” who fought for the Soviets to reclaim Stalingrad from the Nazis.
From there, the movie skips back to the banks of the Volga River in 1942, as Soviets prepare to swarm the Nazi-occupied portion of the city. The attempt fails, but a small group of Soviet scouts and sailors manage to seize an apartment building. The spot has a good view of Nazi soldiers and another perk: An 18-year-old girl named Katya (Mariya Smolnikova) lives there. She turns out to be the narrator’s mother, orphaned in the battle, and to the strains of sentimental music, each of the soldiers falls in love with her, from the nearly mute former opera tenor to the smart-alecky sniper to the cold, haunted commander.
Meanwhile, the soldiers’ nemesis, Nazi Capt. Peter Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann), is being ridiculed by his cartoonishly evil commander over the loss of the building. Kahn becomes obsessed with reoccupying the apartment building, but he manages to take his mind off things by visiting a Russian beauty who bears a striking resemblance to his late wife.
The parallel love stories are fantastically melodramatic, and the plot is riddled with war movie cliches. But for all its faults, “Stalingrad” keeps redeeming itself in the way it communicates the relentless horrors of war.
In one of the movie’s most memorable sequences, a massive explosion during that thwarted offensive sets Soviet soldiers on fire, and yet they keep sprinting toward the front, guns firing, like blazing kamikazes.
The moments when the soldiers first enter the Nazi-occupied apartment building are so artfully shot that the scene looks like complex dance choreography without losing its wartime edge. When the fighting pauses, the incessant dust falling on the shell of a city feels like it’s swirling inside the theater.
The sound design adds to the effect. At one point, as the Nazis prepare for a Soviet raid, all goes silent except for the clinking of machine-gun artillery before the noise of battle explodes with sickening force.
But as quickly as the technical elements pull the audience in, the plot pushes us away. We’re back to the story of the five fathers and confounded by the fact that there are, in fact, six men. We’re contemplating how the storyteller knows so many intimate details about people he never met. But most of all, we’re wishing that the story could transport us the way the special effects do.
R. At area theaters. Contains violence and profanity. In Russian and German with English subtitles. 131 minutes.