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‘Stalingrad’: Saving Katya, or saving Russia?

by Anna ArutunyanNatalia Antonova at 25/10/2013 16:17

In the wake of nationalist riots in Moscow, experts are wondering whether anything unites Russia's diverse population anymore. In the past, the theme of World War II was something that all Russians could rally around - particularly as far as Soviet WWII movies were concerned.

Today, government-sponsored films such as "Stalingrad," which is Russia's nominee for the Academy Awards, are attempting to recreate the Soviet tradition of inspirational war cinema. Or are they? Editors Natalia Antonova and Anna Arutunyan attempted to answer that question.

Anna Arutunyan: This is what the film's producer, Anton Zlatopolsky, said about the movie: "Today's viewer wants to make sense of himself and Russia's historical context in a new way, he's looking for heroes that inspire him... that make him believe in himself and his people."

In light of increasing inter-ethnic tensions in Russia's capital, we saw the movie as part of a cultural trend looking towards something that all Russians shared in common - their history. Did it achieve that?

Natalia Antonova: Well, it achieved ticket sales. "Stalingrad" grossed 713 million rubles [$22.3 million] in its first week, breaking box office records for Russian-made films on the local market.

The movie begins with a 68-year-old Emergencies Ministry official trying to rescue a German tourist trapped under the rubble of the 2011 earthquake in Fukushima. He tells her the story of his mother and five Russian officers who defended her house against the Nazis during the battle of Stalingrad in 1942. He considers all five officers his fathers.

On the other side is a German officer trying to seize the house. He's in love with his Russian mistress/rape victim (yes, it's a complicated relationship, to put it mildly), who lives nearby. Their love-hate dynamics are juxtaposed with the relationship of the five officers with Katya, who ends up standing in for Russia itself. I think the set-up works. Generally, I liked the movie.

AA: I did not. I felt the story didn't really come together. Remember the first combat scenes, and how we couldn't tell anyone apart? In a war, that's what it's generally like. But in a movie, you have to build recognizable characters you can relate to. I wasn't relating that much to the story they were trying to tell me as being caught up in all the special effects.

NA: Speaking of special effects, the biggest compliment I can give this movie is how it looks like a video game.

AA: That it does. I've seen other critics call it a video game, and as a video game it works, but not as a movie.

NA: The video game genre is changing the way we perceive art, and that might be a major part of it. I think there is also the fact that "Stalingrad" has become a legend, it's a mythical place. I think director Fyodor Bondarchuk understands that. The movie is more of a fairy tale. The special effects add to a sense of unreality.

AA: Except it doesn't really work. Quentin Tarantino actually nailed this problem of historic trauma as entertainment in "Inglorious Basterds" and "Django Unchained." There's catharsis in it. This sadistic side of history is interpreted, made sense of, overcome somehow, and in the process we're reconciled with it. I'm not seeing that happen in "Stalingrad."

NA: I think the biggest message of this movie is that Russia is part of global society. You see it in the very first scene, when Russian officials are helping victims of the 2011 earthquake in Japan. There's a message that Russia is over the trauma of past conflicts and is now a member of the global community. There's an outsider syndrome....

AA: ...That Russians are trying to work out in this movie.

NA: It's Russia's dialogue with the world. They have a German character who is ultimately sympathetic and not a monster. And the dialogue comes down to, "Hey, we're all just human."

AA: That's precisely why I think it fails. What you've just described is a very beautiful message, and they do partially get it across. But I felt it was simultaneously trying to tell us something else, that this is our history, which is supposed to unite us. Because the filmmakers are simultaneously trying to get so many other objectives across - like making it look like a slick Hollywood blockbuster - they don't achieve their goals. Do you think it managed to inspire patriotism?

NA: It's not a movie about patriotism.

AA: Right. It just wasn't there.

NA: Because it wouldn't work, not in modern-day Russia. People would see right through that. Russia has changed too much. At least the filmmakers and their state sponsors get it.


Expert opinion

Daniil Dondurei, culture critic, editor-in-chief of film magazine Iskusstvo Kino

[The creators of the film] were trying to solve a lot of objectives at once. They could have just done a staple patriotic picture... but they went for IMAX with special effects, where every minute someone is getting his throat slit, like in American cinema. Nor is it pure entertainment. The producers are being given money [by the government] to show how a girl [Katya] is preparing to give her life for the motherland.
They really had a difficult objective, [simultaneously aiming for different audiences]. First of all, it's not for cinema lovers, but for the so-called popcorn moviegoers. Second, it's for tens of millions who will watch this movie on national television on May 9 [Victory Day]. Third, it's for [international audiences] who don't understand anything about Russian mentality. Finally, it needs to conform to certain technological characteristics to be shortlisted for an Oscar.
[The creators] both succeeded and did not succeed. They still won't manage to convince young girls to prepare for death....The girls will pay attention to the special effects instead.

Read other articles of the print issue "The Moscow News #41"
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