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Movie review: 'Stalingrad' gives honorable dramatic history a 3D pop

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Stalingrad

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"STALINGRAD"-- 3 STARS

We Americans should count ourselves very lucky that, in our country's history, we have not faced a large-scale enemy occupation and volatile war occurring within our cities and raging on our soil during these modern times. Outside of our early history with the British marching through the original thirteen colonies during the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, we have not had anywhere close to the destruction and invasion seen during the First and Second World Wars on the European continent. We never had the Japanese taking over the streets of San Francisco or endured the Germans razing the boroughs of New York City.

Beyond the attack on Pearl Harbor, the war never "came to us" and that was just a single day. Just ask London how it felt to be shelled and bombed for 57 straight nights at the peak of the 37-week London Blitz, when over 40,000 civilians were killed. Ask Paris how it felt to be taken over by an oppressive regime for four years after a grueling Battle of France that killed or wounded over 350,000 soldiers. War "in your backyard" invades homes as well as battlefields and we Americans haven't had that feeling and experience for 200 years. The closest we have is our own Civil War, but that was far from a foreign occupation.

You can watch "Red Dawn" all you want to get a pretend idea and that wouldn't compare. Some of the worst bloodshed of any military occupation in the history of warfare occurred with the Battle of Stalingrad during World War II. Over five arduous months of destructive fighting between 1942 and 1943, nearly two million combined civilian and soldier lives were lost between the invading Germans and the defending Russians. We've never witnessed a sliver of that on our soil.

The Russian victory was a rallying call for that country's strength and the defeat was a backbreaker of heavy losses for the German war effort. To those who don't know the battle's history, the sheer volume and importance of that crucial city siege has become a powerful element to both country's war history. Turning point is an understatement. The way we talk about Pearl Harbor or Gettysburg is the way Germans and Russians still revere Stalingrad.

Volumes of books, documentaries, plays, songs, films, and even video games have sought to tell that battle's tale. For most American audiences, the likely only and limited taste to the Battle of Stalingrad is the heavily dramatized sniper thriller "Enemy at the Gates" from 2001 starring Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, and Ed Harris, a film enjoyed here by many (myself included), but one that was universally despised in Russia and German and for good reason.

Thirteen years after "Enemy at the Gates," in one of the largest and most expensive Russian film productions ever attempted, the simply-titled "Stalingrad" makes its debut in U.S. theaters this weekend, including 12 Chicagoland locations, to put their personal and emphatic voice to their proud history. "Stalingrad" was Russia's entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar competition for this weekend's 86th Academy Awards. It is also the first Russian and first non-American film to be shot in IMAX 3D. Last year, the film became Russia's largest modern box office success. No matter what you think of Russia or what you know about the Battle of Stalingrad, this often impressive film can play in the big boy's pond.

Framed by a modern setting taking place during the catastrophic 2011 Japanese earthquake in Tohoku, a older Russian aid worker on the ground is reassuring a young girl trapped in the rubble of a collapsed building with a story about having five fathers, a personal history born from the Battle of Stalingrad. In short order, we are taken back to the shores of the Volga River to 1942 in the heart of the city's siege. A small team of Russian reconnaissance scouts led by Captain Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov, seen by American audiences in "The Darkest Hour" from 2011) have evaded German forces and acquired a foothold in a crucial apartment building on the river's bank.

Patterned after the famous "Pavlov's House" story of the actual battle, the building looms over a large square with huge lines of sight in three directions, making it a key location to any military force looking to control the city side and the river entry. Both sides covet this building at all costs. Gromov and his men were able to push back German Wehrmacht soldiers led on the ground by Hauptmann Kahn, played by German actor Thomas Kretschmann, the most well-known member of this cast from films like "The Pianist," "King Kong," and "Wanted."

After losing the building to the Russians, Kahn's cruel commanding officer orders preparations for a counterattack to retake it. In the downtime between offensives, the film stretches out to portray the civilian element of this conflict. On the German side of the lines, the Russian locals are put to work serving the Germans. Kahn himself has taken a beautiful woman named Masha (actress and model Yanina Studilina) aside as his victimized mistress. For the Russians, one stalwart apartment resident named Katya (newcomer Maiya Smolnikova) has refused to leave the building and begins to interact and tend to the Russian defenders.

Directed by Fedor Bondarchuk, "Stalingrad" spared no expense using its first go-around with IMAX and 3D filmmaking to its fullest possible extent. This is a movie and setting born and bred for the biggest cinematic format and the action does not disappoint. The battle sequences are extremely thrilling and incredibly staged on enormous actual physical sets. Covered with an almost constant layer of floating ash, dust, and cinder, the depth and scope of the camerawork is extraordinary in both still moments and kinetic ones. You feel every inch of "being in the thick of it." With that high quality of production value across the board, "Stalingrad" is easily one of the most immersive war films for atmosphere and point of view. The bravado musical score provided by frequent David Lynch composer Angelo Badalamenti is icing on the cake to enhance these elements.

The areas of flaw where "Stalingrad" falters is with the inclusion of two subplots of very melodramatic and unnecessary romance. War films often need something to soften the trauma, which is quite fair. What Masha and Katya represent in being civilians caught between two sides warring amid their homes is a good angle, but it's handled with a heavy dose of cheese and weakness. When these romances step in, the strong momentum of the film and its historical push grind to a halt.

Despite those flaws, I must say the tone of "Stalingrad" is firmly planted in a reasonably strong place. Too often, war films ratchet up the violence too far and come across glorifying war. Yes, war is a violent thing and "Stalingrad" doesn't shy away from that whatsoever. That said, the film comes across as respectful and principled towards the efforts and losses occurring on both sides, including the local civilian sacrifices in the middle of the conflict. From the standpoint of honoring history, "Stalingrad" strikes the right chord. As an action film from an unlikely source, it greatly impresses.

LESSON #1: A COUNTRY'S SOLIDARITY DURING WAR-- For both sides of the Battle of Stalingrad, the chief fighting motivation was national pride and solidarity, something necessary within a war of this size and scale. Both sides believed in their mission. For the Germans, the expansion of their dominance with the goal of India across the river was their central quest. For the Russians, it was a matter of defending their homeland and not losing pride. Right down to the men in the trenches, both sides found these causes worth dying for.

LESSON #2: LOVE PROVIDES AN ELEMENT OF HOPE AND PURPOSE WITHIN A WAR-- Though it's not handled the best, the romantic angles of "Stalingrad" do represent this lesson. When you have someone or something you love, fighting to protect it or return to it does indeed create hope and cause within a soldier. Personally, I think every soldier needs that, but so often the horrors and loss of war strip that away and leave a primal side of man that lacks compassion and spirit.

LESSON #3: WHEN WAR INVADES YOUR STREETS AND HOME-- As I was saying with my opener, the Battle of Stalingrad is a harrowing real-life example of what happens war is fought within a heavily populated area, something none of us in this country have experienced here. They may look like abandoned buildings on the movie screen, but those places used to be something. You feel the homes and civilized spaces that were lost before the war and how they are forever changed. The story of the displaced citizen is a big piece to this film.

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