Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Thomas Kretschmann, Dominique Horwitz, Jochen Nickel, Sebastian Rudolph, Dana Vavrova
Juergen Buescher, Johannes M.M. Heide, and Joseph Vilsmaier
Rolf Greim, Klaus Moderegger, and Peter Von Haller
Norbert Juergen Schneider
In German with English subtitles
It's so easy -- too easy, in fact -- for a war movie to turn into a celebration of blood, death, and mayhem. Exploitation of wars and their dehumanizing affects has become a staple of American action films (First Blood, Missing in Action). Occasionally, however, a rare and powerful war movie reaches the screen -- one that delivers a visceral anti-violence message with the force of a punch to the gut. Stalingrad, a 1993 German/Swedish co-production from Guenter Rohrbach, the producer of Das Boot, is such a picture. In the tradition of Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and A Midnight Clear, it uses graphic violence to condemn war.
Stalingrad, which takes place between August 1942 and January 1943, chronicles Hitler's failed invasion of the Russian city -- one of the miscalculations that lost the war for Germany. More than one million died in the bloody struggle, the fatalities caused by wounds, disease, and the same bitter cold that stopped Napolean's forces more than a century earlier. Stalingrad faithfully re-creates the principal historical aspects of the battle while telling a more intimate tale through the eyes of a small group of German characters.
They are Hans Witzland (Thomas Kretschmann), a clean-cut lieutenant making his first trip to the front, and Manfred "Rollo" Rohleder (Jochen Nickel) and Fritz Reiser (Dominique Horwitz), two hardened veteran enlisted men. Together, these three make the long, weary trek down the road of senseless violence and death, losing bits of their humanity along the way. The horrors of Stalingrad irrevocably destroy these men, strafing their souls and crushing their spirits. By the end, it no longer matters whether they live or die -- in almost every way, they're already gone.
The psychologically destructive power of war is most clearly illustrated through the changes undergone by Hans. When Stalingrad opens, he is a patriot serving the Fuhrer and Fatherland unquestioningly. Soon, however, loyalty to his country is supplanted by loathing as he sees the inhumane treatment accorded to Russian prisoners of war. Then, as the battle becomes desperate, with the German army losing scores just to capture another street, the most basic of animal drives -- the need to survive -- asserts itself. Ultimately, even that runs dry, and Hans finds himself groping to save a tiny vestige of the man he once was.
There isolated moments of human triumph in Stalingrad -- like a Russian and German exchanging bread for meat, and Hans setting a woman free instead of raping her. But these are exceptions. Stalingrad's disturbing power comes through its portrayal of the horrific -- decapitations, amputations, grizzly deaths, and mutilations. Nothing is gratuitous; everything is effective. Director Joseph Vilsmaier pulls us into the trenches with these men, who are no different from soldiers on any side in any war. Stalingrad is packed with tension, and the battle sequences are startlingly realistic, but it's the inescapable message that lingers.