The egos of two monsters -- and 2 million human sacrifices to them -- were on the line: For Hitler and Stalin alike, the epic battle for the Soviet dictator's namesake city held more national-psychological than strategic significance.
Americans think Normandy in 1944 turned the tide of World War II. They are wrong. The turning point took place on the Volga River in 1942-43.
Starring: Pyotr Fyodorov, Mariya Smolnikova, Thomas Kretschmann.
Rating: R for sequences of intense war action and violence.
Fedor Bondarchuk's "Stalingrad," the first Russian film made entirely in 3-D and IMAX format, is a spectacular achievement that rises to two opposite challenges. It is at once a monumental macro overview of the struggle and a human-scale micro drama of five men and a woman -- holdouts left to defend one ruined apartment building.
In autumn 1942, the Nazis blitzkrieged their way into Stalingrad, sure of swift victory. ("The Volga today, soon the Wehrmacht will be in India!") But Stalin had other ideas, ordering his Red Army to hold every inch of the city, no matter the cost. Factories, apartment blocks, corner residences and office buildings with sniper advantages were converted into small but incredibly stubborn outposts with five- to six-man units.
Assembling the protagonists and their back stories here is no mean feat in itself. To the director-writers' credit, they come across as types but not stereotypes, all of them turning in beautiful performances:
* Commander Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov), a rough-tough, no-nonsense Colin Farrell look-alike.
* Wonderfully amusing Chvanov (Dmitriy Lysenkov), with his constant stream-of-consciousness chatter -- and deadly good sniper's eye.
* Polyakov (Andrey Smolyakov), gentle old soldier and father figure to the others.
* Ex-concert singer Nikiforov (Aleksey Barabash), whose gorgeous version of "E Lucevan le Stelle" -- when it finally comes -- will break your heart.
We come to care enormously about each of them, as they set up housekeeping with Katya (Mariya Smolnikova), the girl who lives there and refuses to evacuate. She becomes their mascot, den mother and symbol of all they're defending.
We also come to care -- at least slightly-- for Capt. Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann), the one relatively "good" German officer, who says things like: "You come a soldier, you turn into a beast. It's impossible to make war against these people, they have no honor" -- meaning, they don't follow German rules. He is less interested in battle than in beautiful Masha (Yanina Studilina) -- to the detriment of them both.
The Russians, meanwhile, are hopelessly outnumbered, bereft of air cover and ammunition. So terrible were their losses that the life expectancy of a newly arrived Soviet soldier was one day, and that of an officer three days.
The film's most terrifying scene comes early on, when the Germans set fire to their huge fuel dump, pouring it down a hill onto the advancing Russians who -- aflame and screaming -- continue their assault into the German lines, until extinguished by fire or bullets. It's the most astounding Charge of the Light Brigade ever rendered on film.
Back in the city itself, fighting rages in close-quarters combat, Nazis and Soviets firing at each other through holes in the building floors. The Germans bitterly joked about "capturing the kitchen but still fighting for the living room."
The furious Fuhrer, meanwhile, always fancying himself a brilliant tactician, overruled his field marshals (abandon Stalingrad, so the 6th Army could live to fight another day) in favor of: "Defend to the last soldier and last bullet." He believed his man in charge, Gen. Paulus, would fight to end then commit suicide. Gen. Paulus, however, said, "I have no intention of shooting myself for this Bohemian corporal."
Total casualties for the Axis: about 800,000 (killed, wounded, captured). For the Red Army: about 1.2 million. For Stalingrad civilians: about 750,000.
"Stalingrad's" special effects are nothing short of awesome, especially in the battle sequences. The shooting down and crash of a Henkel divebomber employs a whole new state of the 3-D art. Indeed, this is the first time I've ever seen 3-D/IMAX used properly and fully for something serious rather than fantasy. The ashes, sparks and smoke come so close to your face, you'd swear you can smell them, situated as you are in the middle of the scorched ruins. Cinematographer Maxim Osadchiy's superb melee trench fights (filmed with shoulder cams) and long-shot crane panoramas augment them.
It's hard, at times, to distinguish sides in the confusion. And the script, overall, pays much obeisance to the Soviet mythos of Russia's heroic homeland struggle against maniacal Germany. But why not? It's true.
It's also true -- not a silly romantic graft-on -- that 75,000 Soviet women and girls served bravely in Stalingrad, staffing anti-aircraft batteries, fighting Panzers as well as the Luftwaffe, becoming radio operators, machine gunners, mortar operators and tank drivers. Three air regiments were entirely female.
I'm not keen on the movie's labored ("Titanic"-esque) framing device. But for all its bombs and bombast, "Stalingrad" comes in at a fairly tight two hours 10 minutes. It will rank among the best of all World War II pictures -- an emotional powerhouse whose meticulous historical combat re-creation and detail are stunningly real, down to the framed Pushkin portraits and butterfly collections on slaughtered citizens' walls.
It is very violent but not hideously grisly or depressing. Take yourself and your older children. It's inspirational. It's important.
(In Russian and German, with excellent English subtitles. Opens today at AMC Loews at the Waterfront.)
Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: email@example.com.