I remember when Stalingrad came out on VHS. I was working at a video store and argued for ordering it, based on the ads mention of it having the same producer as Das Boot. Still, I was a little surprised at how much the opening credits try to go for a Das Boot feel. It’s kind of shameless.
Then the movie opens strongly, with the heroes on leave in Italy. Actually, until they get to Stalingrad–so, basically there’s a good train ride and then that’s it–Stalingrad is fine. Once the five soldiers the film follows get there, everything falls apart. Everything except some of the performances. And only some of them. The rest of them are terrible. So, five or six good performances, then a bunch of awful amateurish ones. But the performances fit the script, which is a painfully obvious mess. A lot of the plotting feels like Stalingrad was intended for Das Boot length, but got cut up. There are few transitions and often sequences make no sense.
The director, Joseph Vilsmaier, doesn’t help. Unless Stalingrad was shot on an über-cheap budget, there’s no excuse for Vilsmaier’s composition. His battle scenes are fine, even his soldiers sitting around scenes (which comprise the majority of the film–the script feels like a play adaptation and a bad one), but whenever he’s got to establish a setting, he fails miserably. It often looks like a poorly directed after school special.
The acting from Thomas Kretschmann, Dominique Horwitz and Jochen Nickel is all excellent. Kretschmann’s so good I couldn’t believe it was him. Horwitz is obviously not German, no matter how his hair is cut and I kept wondering if I was supposed to notice. Nickel’s got the easiest role, the sturdy then crumbling sergeant, but he does good things with it. Like I said before, there are a handful of other good performances.
The biggest overall problem with the film is its narrative cheapness. Not only is there the Russian kid the soldiers all like, but there’s also a villain who hunts the soldiers throughout. It’s silly and the silliness is the worst thing about Stalingrad. The filmmakers seem to think its subject alone will make it good and they’re wrong.
Directed and photographed by Joseph Vilsmaier; written by Johannes Heide, Jürgen Büscher and Vilsmaier; edited by Hannes Nikel; music by Norbert Schneider; production designers, Wolfgang Hundhammer and Jindrich Goetz; produced by Hanno Huth, Gunther Rohrbach and Vilsmaier; released by Senator Film.
Starring Dominique Horwitz (Fritz), Thomas Kretschmann (Hans), Jochen Nickel (Rollo) and Sebastian Rudolph (GeGe).