DVD: Battle of Stalingrad, The / Stalingradskaya bitva / Die Stalingrader Schlacht (1949)

January 16, 2016 | By

 

BattleOfStalingrad_R2_bFilm: Good

Transfer:  Good

Extras: Very Good

Label:  Icestorm (Germany)

Region: 2 (PAL)

Released:  November 14, 2008

Genre:  War

Synopsis: The bloody Battle of Stalingrad is chronicled from a more executive level in this classic Soviet era propaganda film in which Comrade Stalin is the true saviour of the brutalized city from Nazi clutches.

Special Features:  8-page booklet with liner notes.

— Disc 1 – Featurette: “In Stalingrad, Phantasia und anderswo” (20:52) / Stills Gallery / Director Bio & Filmography.
— Disc 2 – Featurette: “Stalingrad – Die Grosste Schalcht des Zweiten Wltkrieges” (19:43) / Stills Gallery / Icestorm Trailers.

 

 


 

Review:

The Battle of Stalingrad was the first cinematic attempt to dramatize the pivotal 1942-1943 battle in which Adolph Hitler’s 6th Army and the 4th Panzer Army were surrounded (‘kesseled’) by Joseph Stalin’s Red Army, and what Adolph Hitler had naively and foolishly felt would be a winnable quashing of the industrial river city of Stalingrad became the first signal that Nazi Germany would soon lose the war.

The roughly 5 month battle symbolized the strife between warring countries, egotistical leaders, and the absolute horror to which humanity could plunge, and it  mandated an epic film treatment that portrayed all facets of a complex battle where soldiers and civilians from both sides suffered immeasurably, but with Soviet Russia being the winner in 1943 and being one of the main world superpowers to emerge from the ashes of WWII, it’s kind of natural the horror of Stalingrad would be presented from a slightly different angle.

Battle was part of a proposed 10 but ultimately 4 or 3 film series (depending on sources) called “artistic documentaries” which were reportedly designed to present Soviet victories in propagandistic containers and show its populace at home and emerging Communist countries the virtue of sage leadership under Stalin, and to the rest of the world, the awesome might of the Soviet military machine (or put in other words, ‘Don’t fuck with us’).

Battle also celebrates the cult of Stalin as a super-genius, a father figure who knows best for Mankind because of his great sense of human behaviour, grasp of history, and what the future beholds. While the film is divided into two parts running roughly 90 mins. each, the first half repeatedly cuts back and forth between Russian and German military characters and Stalin at his palatial headquarters as he pauses, strolls, and ponders between strategy & meeting rooms & his humble office on how best to evict the Nazis from the city bearing his name.

The film also follows what historian Peter Kenez details in Cinema and Soviet Society: From the Revolution to the Death of Stalin as a drama where common folks are virtually absent, and the main characters are leaders, generals, and waves of generic soldiers (men and women) fighting, suffering, and ultimately winning after much struggle. The message is clear: as one unified organism, the State can achieve greatness, but everyone must tow the line and never question what has been ordained by Comrade Stalin.

The regular cross-cutting between German and Soviet military characters and Stalin vignettes makes the first half exceptionally ponderous, certainly to the point where Uncle Joe devolves from cult icon to a quiet comical figure: Aleksei Dikiy’s portrayal of the leader (his second, after the 1948 film The Third Blow) shows him always calm, quietly composed; worry is replaced with deep yet measured concern; fear is largely absent; and words like ‘impossible’ and ‘dour’ and ‘hopeless’ are covered under the more acceptable ‘struggle’ which implies after hardship and persistence comes assured victory.

Stalin (seen decorated with a single modest medal) has usually one or two loyal comrades by his side (each wearing multiple medals), each of whom stands silently (or perhaps as bored actors) until Stalin makes a wise observation, taking a grease pencil and striking a line here, there, and over there to indicate how the Red Army can coordinate a tight noose for the trapped Germans. His minions then agree or express reserved approval before executing his wishes.

Rather than detail small vignettes of local suffering, director Vladimir Petrov fixates on Stanlingrad’s near-total devastation using a visual style that’s unique to Soviet cinema: slow tracking shots pass by twisted wires, burnt out vehicles, and frozen cadavers while bombs erupt from the ground in perfect choreography. Whether in the ruined city, the fields and trenches packed with shivering Germans, or masses upon masses of Red Army soldiers advancing towards Stalingrad, the chaos of bombs, planes, tanks, trucks, and assorted mayhem in uninterrupted, calmly tracking shots is neatly choreographed to infer both documentary realism and the scale of a Hollywood epic, fusing rival genres into jaw-dropping sequences that still impress.

Some of the models and miniatures used in montages vary in quality, and the regular insertion of newsreel quality footage of firing anti-aircraft canons is monotonous, but Battle lives up to its reputation as an epic war film, featuring a cast of thousands of soldiers that often blanket whole valleys and hillsides.

Petrov also makes clever use of sets to break through physical barriers, placing the audience at the edge of grandly sprawling mayhem. In Part 2, the camera similarly tracks back and forth along a fixed axis, passing through the walls of communication rooms and offices of busy Red Army strategists. In another unique sequence, the camera cranes vertically and horizontally along a skeletal building that for the audience’s benefit has been sliced open like a dollhouse to show the stairway through which Soviet soldiers engage in house-to-house combat and reclaim a building from Nazi clutches.

Where Petrov excels in dramatizing scope with patience, he fumbles the drama by sticking to the propaganda genre’s tone of staid, stern military leaders whose stoicism could also (again) be read as actor boredom. The only realm of emotion seems to come from the German scenes: the 6th’s Army Gen. Paulus is portrayed as a conflicted man overwhelmed by bad military strategy, eventually surrendering with veiled disgust to Red Army grunts; and Hitler, with actor Mikhail Astangov sporting a buzzard putty nose, glowering eyeballs, and engaging fits of rage which initially recalls Warner Bros. WWII propaganda cartoons, but when compared to the 2004 film Downfall / Der Untergang, doesn’t seem so broad…

It’s fair game for Petrov to contrast calm, fair-minded analytical Soviets with vain Nazi tantrums, and decorated Nazi generals exchanging glances of worry and shock at Hitler’s barked orders with Soviet counterparts who are always quite and reasonable, but even Stalin becomes a little rich in his idyllic paternalism when he’s shown reading mathematical pictograms in a small book, scribbling concise and maybe important notes, and setting aside his dutiful military studies for the night to address a peculiar triangular-folded letter from a citizen, which he then refolds and returns to what could be characterized as a stack of fan mail – not too big, not too small, but reasonable.

Besides the impressive battle scenes (which often put humans in dangerously close proximity to explosions and fast-moving tanks), there’s also a marvelous sequence in which a few Red Army grunts atop a building are reduced to one as Nazi soldiers crawl along the grubby, almost sewer-wet street ruins like a mass of rodents as they attempt to overtake the building; and the finale, where Yuri Yekelchik’s camera cranes up from the faces of Red Army soldiers to incredible high angles (it’s an amazing shot), revealing rows upon rows of soldiers assembled across Mother Russia. The deliberate emphasis on highlighting forces from diverse ethnic regions also recalls Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda classic Triumph of the Will (1935) in which young men shout their home provinces and show allegiance to the Fatherland.

Iconic composer Aram Khachaturian composed a score that’s very hit-and-miss, mostly due to the awful way it was edited to fit sequences. His heroic main theme is often chopped up and spliced to track over many battle scenes. His most beautiful work is perhaps the striking elegy written for the doomed soldiers who defended that skeletal building from the rodent-like Nazis; the hoard of demoralized Germans waiting for the Red Army to smash down the door to their hiding spot and arrest them; and the thematic wrap-up that adds grandeur to the masses of Red Army soldiers that have gathered in the ruined city centre where the Nazis have dumped their weapons before their formal arrest.

More amusing is the composer’s truly mawkish rendition of “O Tannenbaum” (“Oh Christmas Tree”), the beautiful Christmas carol which Khachaturian plays over select montages to either ridicule the pomposity of the Germans, or in the finale, present the lumbering German prisoners as worn out sad sacks by using a small ensembles of brass playing deflated, off-key notes.

Being a propaganda film meant to enhance the existing cult of Stalin, the film doesn’t contain references to nor appearances of Georgy Zhukov, the Deputy Commander-in-Chief who, alongside Vasilevsky, were charged with defending Stalingrad. Zhukov’s deletion from this ‘artistic documentary’ enabled Stalin to be enshrined as the Master Planner, and reinforce Uncle Joe as the country’s chief saviour whose sage advice was carried out, without tweaks, by loyal minions. (One of Stalin’s final scenes has him eyeing Berlin on the map – a nice set-up for the next ‘artistic documentary,’ The Fall of Berlin, shot in colour, and released in two parts a year later.)

 

Die Stalingrader Schlacht – Region 2 DVD

Although the film is available from International Historic Films in a 2012 North American release, this review pertains to the 2008 German Region 2 set from Icestorm, which sports a different restoration between the Russian  and DEFA film archives.

The source materials are very much archival, as the film was apparently withdrawn from circulation when Nikita Khrushchev started to remove aspects of cult of Stalin after the dictator’s death. This restoration features a blend of 16mm footage in a conference scene as the original footage showing Lavrentiy Beria was reportedly excised from the print and no longer survives in 35mm.

Icestorm undertook a rather unique aspect of the film’s restoration by matching the dub tracks from the DEFA archives to create a nearly complete German language version. The original Russian audio only appears over scenes or shots in Part 2 where no German equivalent survives, and German subtitles are overlaid. German inter-titles and newly created video titles / captions are also used, but there’s no complete German subtitle track for the whole film.

In terms of audio quality, neither the Russian nor German tracks are perfect, and Khachaturian’s music tends to be shrill when it the brass are at their loudest. Icestorm applied some digital filtering that gives the sound mix slight depth, whereas the DNR is sometimes very heavy in scenes where there’s stark contrast and the print dirt or damage was perhaps too grimy.

The DVD booklet (in German) features some details on the film’s restoration, release, its propaganda, and a timeline of events tracing the battle for Stalingrad. There’s also a short bio on director Petrov, who had directed Dikiy (himself a noted director) in the 1944 Soviet propaganda film Kutuzov, which impressed Stalin and put the actor in a favourable light after a 4-year term in the gulags.

Extras include a featurette with special effects whiz Uli Nefzer (Enemy at the Gates, Downfall) on the various pyrotechnics applied in action and war films (rain, explosions, snow, use of models, etc.) on Disc 1, and on Disc 2 there’s a lengthy overview on the battle of Stalingrad with military historian Dr. Jurgen Angelow with comments by painter and battle survivor Falk Patzsch, and his son Werner Nerlich.

Patzsch recounts the horrors he witnesses, the virtual death march after capture, and his remarkable escape playing dead face-down in the snow until every Russian sentry had passed by, and he could make his way back to Germany.

Stills galleries are frame grabs from each part, and a collection of Icestorm trailers, including the 7.5 hour Soviet-East German epic Liberation / Osvobozhdenie (1969).

 

Postscript

Completed ‘artistic documentaries’ include The Vow / Pitsi (1946), The Third Blow / The Southern Knot / Tretiy udar (1948), The Battle of Stalingrad / Stalingradskaya bitva (1949), and The Fall of Berlin / Padeniye Berlinaz (1950).

 

 

© 2015 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
 
Vendor Search Links:
Amazon.ca —  Amazon.com —  Amazon.co.uk

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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