Vasily Grossman’s monumental novel “Life and Fate” is surely one that, like its inspiration “War and Peace,” defies easy adaptation to the movie screen. Frederick Wiseman’s “The Last Letter” took a masterful minimalist approach, using a single chapter from the 900-page volume and turning it into a monodrama showcasing Catherine Samie as a Jewish doctor recounting the coming of the Nazi murder machine to her hometown. The BBC turned “Life and Fate” into an eight-hour radio drama anchored by Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant. And Russian television tackled it in 2012 in a nine-hour miniseries.
Much as Grossman harkens back to a 19th-century model of novel writing, Fedor Bondarchuk’s new film “Stalingrad,” which opens this week, is a throwback to an old-fashioned model of film narrative, albeit with the latest technological trappings. The largest-grossing Russian film of 2013, it is also the first Russian film made in IMAX 3D©, with all that implies both good and bad.
As a director, Bondarchuk didn’t have to look far for his inspiration. His father, Sergei Bondarchuk, who has a small but significant part in the film, directed and starred in the Oscar-winning 1966 version of “War and Peace,” and unsurprisingly, “Stalingrad” resembles that film in its dogged but effective effort to balance the epic with the intimate. The end result is a film with a certain cumulative power, more effective in its quiet moments than its noisy set pieces but with a few indelible images of massive destruction.
Like Grossman, Bondarchuk focuses much of his attention on the Battle of Stalingrad as a microcosm of the social, political and military forces at play in Stalin’s Russia. The screenplay by Ilya Tilkin and Sergey Shazhkin has a rather clumsy framing device in which a Russian doctor (Sergei Bondarchuk) working in a rescue crew in Fukushima, Japan, tells the story of his mother’s survival of Stalingrad as a way of distracting a young German woman trapped in the rubble left by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. It’s an arbitrary and awkward way of establishing that in the 21st century old enmities are forgotten and it is nature rather than man that wreaks havoc. However, Bondarchuk fils uses the constant rain of ashes in 3-D quite effectively to link Fukushima and Stalingrad visually, one of the film’s nicer grace notes.
From there we are thrown into the maelstrom of 20th-century warfare at its most brutal. After a nightmarish attack in which Russian soldiers, set on fire by the ignition of a fuel dump, surge forward into German machine-gun nests, the film settles into the ebb and flow of close combat with a handful of Russians holding a single apartment building that controls access to the Volga River. From here, despite 3-D and CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) and all the other technology at his disposal, Bondarchuk falls back on the 70-year-old conventions of the WWII combat film, counterposing seemingly imperturbable Russian officer Gromov (Petr Fedorov) and beleaguered “good” German officer Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann), and fleshing out the other Soviet soldiers who are dug in. They are, of course, an ill-assorted group thrown together by chance, representing obvious facets of the society of the period, but all basically stoic and heroic. The Germans, except Kahn of course, unquestioningly obey their evil commanding officer, burning to death a woman and child suspected of being Jewish and terrorizing civilians.
Period films are never about the period in which they are set. They are about the period in which they were made. “Stalingrad” is no exception. Grossman’s book spends a lot of pages on the aftermath of the war, in which Stalinism proves to be nearly as brutal and every bit as repressive as Nazism. Somehow all of that material disappears in this adaptation, and we are left with a final image of the saintly Russian doctor bonding with a now-rescued young woman who bears a faint resemblance to Kahn’s ill-fated Russian mistress. Whether he meant to or not, Fedor Bondarchuk has made a small contribution to the ongoing rehabilitation of Joseph Stalin by his post-modern avatar, Vladimir Putin.
“Stalingrad” opens on Friday, Feb. 28 at AMC 34th Street, AMC Lincoln Square and AMC Kips Bay.