Category Archives: History at the Movies Film Reviews

National Consciousness in Crisis: Assessing Perceptions of Guilt, Heroism, Femininity, and the Myth of the “Good Soldier” in German World War II Cinema

By Paige Ross

“Why do the oppressors praise you everywhere, / The oppressed accuse you?

The plundered, Point to you with their fingers, but / The plunderer praises the system

That was invented in your house! / Whereupon everyone sees you

Hiding the hem of your mantle which is bloody / With the blood

Of your best sons.”

“Deutschland,” Bertolt Brecht (1933)

In the scope of the Second World War, perhaps no nation underwent such a severe and pronounced identity crisis following the Allied victory in Europe, than Germany. The country had been plunged into a dictatorial fascist system with the promise of better times to come economically, politically, and globally. This fascist experiment failed miserably. In the wake of Germany’s surrender and the uncovering of the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, the nation was forced to grapple with its people’s actions prior to the war as well as during. The difficulties Germany faced in rendering judgement on its people can be seen as a chronological evolution in German films about World War II. Through each film, various elements of the German past, consciousness, and national identity are revealed to the viewer. The Bridge (1959), Germany Pale Mother (1980), Stalingrad (1993), and A Woman in Berlin (2008), all seek to confront or deny various aspects of German victimhood, femininity or masculinity, and heroism in war.

Bernhard Wicki’s 1959 film The Bridge, tells the story of seven young boys in a small German town as the American forces advance during the last year of World War II. The seven are drafted into the German army in the final desperate days of the war in Europe and tasked with defending a bridge outside of their small town. Each of the seven boys has a distinct and particular storyline and each represent a unique facet of the German population at the time. Taken collectively, they represent a cross-section of German society in the latter years of World War II, and allow for class lines to vanish as all become intertwined in their struggle for life. The film is a story of friendship, brotherhood, and the loss of innocence that inevitably occurs in a time of war. The Bridge also depicts the generational gap in the adherence to or disregard of the nation’s rallying cry, “For the Fuhrer, the People, and the Fatherland!” For older soldiers, the men who likely saw the destruction, horror, and death of the First World War; this fight is becoming clearly hopeless. For the youngest in Germany, likely not even born during World War I, this war is a valiant struggle for the country and its ideals, a source of inspiration and a fight that can be won.

Above all, The Bridge provides a raw commentary on the pointlessness of the enterprise of war, and in doing so, offers a subtle criticism of not only war in general, but the insignificance of the hopeless war Germany carried on in the last months and weeks of the conflict. While the film comments on the sacrifice of the youngest boys in Germany as an act of desperation sent from military leaders at the top, the film dodges any mention of or depiction of policies or practices pertaining to the Holocaust. In that sense, while The Bridge may effectively comment on the evils of war as an enterprise, and even the practice in Germany of sending boys as young as fifteen to the front in the war’s waning days, it fails to provide a well-rounded criticism of Germany in the larger context of the atrocities committed by Germans in the war.

While The Bridge depicts the pointless enterprise of war, and especially the senseless loss of life (particularly among the youth) that occurs in a time of violent conflict, Helma Sanders-Brahms’ 1980 film Germany Pale Mother, provides an obvious commentary on the narrative of “German victimhood.” In addition to critiquing the “victimhood” narrative, Germany Pale Mother focuses intensively on the feminine struggle unique to war, by following the life and hardships of Lene, a woman married to a German soldier. During the war, Lene is forced to flee her home after it is destroyed in an air raid, and many of the most gripping sequences involve her journey on foot to safety, often in adverse weather conditions, carrying all of her remaining belongings and her only child on her back.

Germany Pale Mother is starkly unique in that it captures the embattled essence of the feminine experience during a time of hyper-masculinity and widespread violence. One of the most powerful sequences in the film occurs after Lene is raped by two Allied soldiers and her daughter Anna walks to where she lies. Lene calmly tells her, “The victors’ right, little girl. They rob and take women.” This single scene perhaps more than any in other in Germany Pale Mother addresses Lene’s understanding (and perhaps the broader understanding of German women) of her complicity in the war and its effects. Germany Pale Mother is a valuable work of history in that it not only acknowledges the strength and fortitude of German women during and after the war, but that it also addresses that these strong women were a part of a larger system that caused immense suffering and widespread atrocity.

Nearly a decade and a half later, Joseph Vilsmaier’s 1993 film Stalingrad, moved in a completely opposite direction in terms of addressing German complicity in the war and its tragedies. Against the backdrop of the so-called historian’s debate, in which academics in the 1980s began to question how Germany and its soldiers should be portrayed and remembered in the larger legacy of World War II, the film is deeply troubling. Stalingrad takes a sympathetic stance on the German soldiers of the 6th Army fighting in the Soviet Union, even as some of Germany’s atrocities in the USSR are depicted. In a further attempt to convey the main protagonists as purely good men fighting for love of country, Stalingrad creates obvious rifts and differences between the authority figures who give the orders and the “average” soldiers who obey them. The film paints the image of the top tier officers as stereotypically evil and callous, while giving the ordinary soldiers redeeming characteristics.

In addition to illustrating a sympathetic picture of the German soldiers as they struggle for their lives against the brutal elements of Soviet winter and battle, the film also conveniently begins in a time frame that excludes the atrocities committed by the advancing Wehrmacht in various parts of Belorussia. As a work of history or historical truth, Stalingrad is extremely problematic. And while the film is a gripping work that illustrates a raw side of war, it fails to provide acknowledgement of the evils committed by German troops in the Soviet Union. In failing to address the truth which runs counter to the “clean Wehrmacht” and the “good German soldier” myths, Stalingrad points to the selectivity of the histories being told in Germany during the time, and the desire to adhere to an untarnished legacy of the nation’s soldiers in World War II.

The cycle of addressing morally ambiguous elements of war as well as femininity and the unique circumstances women face comes full circle in Max Färberböck’s 2008 film A Woman in Berlin. The film follows the collapse of Germany and the capture of Berlin by the Soviets in the final weeks of World War II through the eyes of an anonymous German woman. The film illustrates the unique and complex circumstances civilians, and in particular, women, were forced to face following the Allied victory. Much of the opening portion of A Woman in Berlin focuses on the visceral fear and despair the remaining civilians felt in the war’s concluding days and deals with the repeated rape and victimization of German women. These circumstances force a viewer to feel a semblance of the volatile emotions facing German women as well as to come to terms with questions pertaining to their innocence or guilt in the larger Nazi system. While many women were loyal followers of the party (the main character included), one is forced to grapple with whether or not the women in the film, in the wake of a lost war, should solicit sympathy for their plight. A Woman in Berlin also speaks once more to the strength and fortitude of German women, as the anonymous main character learns to navigate a hostile environment wrought with rape, exploitation, and pain—and win back some of her autonomy. The film speaks to the feminine experience of the effects of war, as well as to a part of German history that largely remains ignored.

Films are a distinctly powerful way to depict and convey pieces of the human experience. Historical films have the unique ability to not only tell stories, but to educate audiences on the truths of the past. In this sense, films about history have a responsibility to provide a “truthful” immersion in the events being told and played out on screen. “Truth” can encompass a wide variety of facets—emotional, psychological, factual—but above all, “truth” remains of the utmost importance. Perhaps nowhere is this strict adherence to truth in historical film more important than in Germany. The country was led to war by a fascist regime that was directly responsible for the death of millions of innocent people. Germany was also one of the nations that lost the most in World War II. Nuances and ambiguities abound in any major conflict such as war, and by examining the chronological depictions of Germany and its people on screen, one can gain a greater understanding not only of the evils of a people, but of the virtues as well—culminating in larger historical and pointedly human experience.

Paige Ross graduated in December 2018 with a degree in History.

Studying History through Film: A Reflection

By Adam J. Ring

Over the course of the Fall 2018 semester, my classmates and I engaged in a focused study of World War II using film as the primary vehicle for historical insight and interpretation. The learning that has occurred from day one up to the last meeting cannot be understated: I now approach films, and historical films in particular, much differently. I wrote fourteen reviews, one for each assigned film, analyzing movies about World War II, mainly concerning myself with questions surrounding the extent or lack thereof of historical accuracy. This piece will attempt to synthesize everything learned over the past fifteen weeks and offer some takeaways about the importance of historical film and what it is able to offer that other mediums cannot.

Movies are not texts; they are often two hours or less and utilize sound and imagery to convey a message. This has both pros and cons: movies are logistically limited in what they can show; after all, it is very difficult if not entirely impossible to capture the same amount of information in a movie that a book about the same topic might contain. Yet, that analysis is very surface-level, because it prioritizes breadth over depth. Books have the ability to cover every little minutiae and can take hundreds of pages meticulously describing out every detail. Films, on the other hand, are time-constrained, and thus must make sacrifices. Sometimes these sacrifices omit important information that books or other mediums could have better portrayed; but other times they allow for interesting interpretations, and actually enhance the quality of the history that is told.

Robert A. Rosenstone, Professor Emeritus of History at the California Institute of Technology, offers some insight that highlights the advantages films have over other forms of distribution. He explains that “the ability to elicit strong, immediate emotion…[is] no doubt the practice that most clearly distinguish[es] the history film from history on the page” (Rosenstone 15). This simple statement carries with it a great deal of truth. No matter how brilliantly-worded the language is, printed books simply cannot compete with advanced camera work, where directors are literally able to show their audiences scenes that cannot be adequately expressed in words. Reading about European Jews being executed is not the same as watching it on the screen. Reading about men dying from freezing weather on the Russian fronts does not have the same impact as watching it. The point here is simple: movies offer two things books cannot and will never be able to offer: image and sound. Film has the ability to recreate the past in a way that can bring its audience closer to the truth, which is ultimately the paramount purpose in historical movies.

Many of the movies assigned this semester contained similar themes, and asked questions dealing with assessing where blame should lie, and who some of the biggest losers of the war were. Books can often brush past some of the most controversial issues, or, if they do tackle them, it is just printed text on a page. Movies, on the other hand, offer something much greater: the director can use metaphors and other symbolic imagery to convey a central message, and can avoid censorship by employing clever tricks that hint at possible controversial opinions, but carefully hide them in the fabric of the movie.

There is a constant struggle between assessing what makes a good movie versus what makes a good historical movie. This distinction is an important one, because movies can be theatrically and graphically fantastic, but they fail to be good historical movies unless they use what is on the screen to convey some bigger message. Rosenstone notes that “significant works have been created – films that provide knowledge of, insight to, and interpretation of the lives of individuals; films that let us see, hear, and understand a great deal about not only the person but, in many cases, his or her historical milieu” (Rosenstone 82). I like that Rosenstone comments that movies have a particular ability to help us learn about a person’s milieu, or social environment. It is not enough to create a plot and include characters; what is far more important is to situate characters in an environment that invites critical analysis and commentary, something that good movies of history try to accomplish.

All of this being said, watching and analyzing historical movies has an even larger and nobler purpose, because through the practice of studying film, we are able to sharpen our “historical lenses” and ultimately become better citizens of a democratic society situated within a multicultural world. The skills I have learned after watching and reviewing these movies helped bolster my appreciation for the past, but more importantly, it taught me to critically examine everything I see, because it is through analysis and deliberation where the truth begins to emerge.

Adam J. Ring is a junior majoring in Integrated Social Studies Education with a minor in History.

Visions of “Dunkirk”

By Chad Goss

Grade for “Dunkirk”:  B-

If I were to give Dunkirk just a film grade, it would be a solid A. The performances, non-linear storytelling, score, storyline, and some of the shots all combined to create the best and most enjoyable viewing experience so far experienced in this class. The combination of three different narrative threads, on land, on sea, and in the air, all following one or several major characters as they attempt to leave or get to Dunkirk was a viewing experience that demands repeat viewings as a film. However, my job is to grade the film as a historical film, and in that sense this film earns a B-.

The strengths of Dunkirk come from the filmmaking. It is without a doubt one of the most visually stunning films I have ever seen and for sure this is the most well shot and edited film seen in our class with certain shots of the sea and the beaches being breathtaking. The nonlinear storytelling and lack of much dialogue throws viewers into the confusion and uncertainty that many of the characters in the film would have been feeling at the time as well. Finally, the score completes the viewing experience by drawing viewers fully into the film. Each moment of music or sound clues the viewer in on what is coming next and at certain points the lack of any extra music leaves the viewer feeling as if they two were experiencing the events first hand. All around an impressively made film that deserves much praise for maintaining the emotional truths of the soldiers by showing their despair, hopelessness, and overall uncertainty throughout the entire film. Even though the viewers knows many of them will be saved, the viewer is still left with a sense of dread and worry much like the characters in the scene.

What truly brings this film down in its rating is its inability to draw on the historical truths about the presence and sacrifices of imperial soldiers at this moment in history. Robert Rosenstone makes a point of emphasis that maintaining accuracy is a primary component to creating a good historical film. It is the responsibility of these films to represent and portray history as closely as possible to the way that it actually happened. Dunkirk does a great job with physical aspects such as uniforms, vehicles, and timelines, but it fails to include all those who were there. By ignoring those who sacrificed their lives the film creates historical inaccuracy and throughout the semester this has proven to be an error that must result in a lower grade. Dunkirk is not exempt from this just because it is a high quality film.

It is a shame that more care was not taken in ensuring the historical accuracy of the film was complete and peoples were included in the final cut of the film. If this had been done, Dunkirk might have stood above the rest as film depicting history while also creating an incredibly pleasing viewing experience. However, despite all of the greatness that was achieved in the filmmaking process, it is undone by the choice to not accurately represent all of those where truly there and sacrificed all everything.

Chad Goss is a senior majoring in Finance with a minor in History.

Emotional History in “Dunkirk”

By Aleah Sexton

Grade for “Dunkirk”:  A

Dunkirk, the 2017 British WWII film directed by Christopher Nolan, brilliantly portrays the 1940 evacuation at the Battle of France of over 300,000 men on the German-occupied beach. The film highlights the bravery and resilience of the soldiers on the land, air, and sea during a period of intense anxiousness and uncertainty. The film follows the journeys of three men in the RAF, three privates on foot, and three British civilians requisitioned to use their vessel to help with the evacuation. The production allows the audience to follow Operation Dynamo in a nonlinear way to create suspense and confusion to mirror the emotions the actual soldiers were feeling. Nolan plays with temporal setting to focus on the variety of stories and mental states that the men were feeling during the evacuation. The true nature of war was distinguished between the military control and civilian control. The men on the mole awaiting their evacuation were treated as pure numbers and the boats were certainly not overloaded. This portrayal can be contrasted against Dawson and his unwavering stance on rescuing as many men as his small vessel can handle. There appear to be three main protagonists – Tommy, the single survivor of a German ambush; Farrier, the committed RAF who is captured by the enemy as a result of a broken fuel gauge; and Dawson, the older sailor dedicated to rescuing the men of Dunkirk as a tribute to his passed son. Their stories become intermingled as the film moves on, and the creative use of filmography allows the audience to truly engage themselves with the mission.

In terms of historical accuracy, I would estimate Dunkirk to be a mix between a dramatic feature film and innovative historical film as documented by Robert Rosenstone. The dramatic feature film seeks to place “individuals at the centre of the historical process” and elicits strong emotions. It aims to get “you, the viewer, to experience the hurt (and pleasures) of the past”. Dunkirk uses the stories of the men to create specific reactions from the audience. Their struggle and celebration is mirrored by the audience. It is plausible Dunkirk is also a innovative historical film because of Nolan’s use of cinematic features. This category of historical films is broad, and uses “a wide variety of theories, ideologies, an aesthetic approaches with both potential and real impact upon historical thought”. The nonlinear combination of stories creates a confusing, yet entrancing WWII story. These films “attempt to rethink history on the screen”. The history surrounding Dunkirk and Operation Dynamo may have a particular narrative and the film creates conversation around the the actual technicalities revolved around the situation.

In essence, Dunkirk is a phenomenal modern WWII film which utilizes advanced filmography techniques to recreate the emotions of the time. The protagonists each share a compelling story about how the sea, land, and air was connected to create an extremely challenging, yet absolutely necessary rescue of more than 300,000 British men.

Aleah Sexton is a junior majoring in Finance with a minor in History.

The Suspense of “Dunkirk”

By Jill Teitelbaum

Grade for “Dunkirk”:  A-

Dunkirk is a dramatic portrayal of the Allied evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 that glorifies the British efforts while snubbing those of the French and colonial troops. The director, Christopher Nolan, successfully uses music and temporal sequences to create suspense and time sensitivity as well as introduce the various characters before they all converge in the end.

 

The opening title card sets the scene and introduces the high stakes, “The enemy have driven the British and French armies to the sea. Trapped at Dunkirk, they await their fate. Hoping for deliverance. For a miracle.” There are 400,000 men awaiting rescue. The rescue effort is hindered by bombing from German planes. In one particularly jarring scene, a medical ship is sunk at the mole with countless wounded men aboard. In addition to the threat from overheard, the Nazis are closing in from the land. Captain Winnant warns that, “They’re breaking through the dunes to the east. This is it.” This dialogue is one example of the emphasis on timing.

 

Nolan uses three temporal sequences to drive the plot: the mole, the sea and the air. The audience is told that they last one week, one day and one hour, respectively. Throughout the movie, the stories from each sequence begin to interweave. For example, an early dogfight results in a pilot, Collins, attempting a water landing. We later see the same landing from the perspective of the Dawsons aboard their private boat. After the Navy began requisitioning civilian boats, the Dawsons, along with their young friend, George, head to Dunkirk to help rescue men themselves. They rescue Collins in the nick of time as he was drowning while trapped inside his cockpit. This also shows how the overlapping stories are crucial to establishing the time sensitivity.

 

Towards the end of the movie, when the fate of the men at Dunkirk seems sealed, Commander Bolton notices all of the civilian British boats appear on the horizon. This is one of the most heartwarming scenes in the movie and it also highlights the Britishness of it. The small ships have Union Jacks and plainly clothed Brits of all ages. The Commander excitedly greets many of them and asks which towns they’re from.

 

Despite the combined military and civilian efforts, thousands of men do not survive. Many drown aboard ships sunk by German bombs or torpedoes. Others burn alive while caught in oil slicks on the water. Several of the characters, including the main protagonist Tommy, and the first man that the Dawsons rescue, the shivering soldier, endure multiple failed attempts to escape Dunkirk. They witness one tragedy after another before finally making it home in the end.

 

Overall, this movie powerfully illustrates the stories of a handful of the hundreds of thousands of British who were at Dunkirk and how they relied on all of the efforts on land, sea and air to survive. Although it neglects to recognize the French and colonial efforts, it highlights the time sensitivity, tragedies and heroism of the operation which affected everyone at Dunkirk.

Jill Teitelbaum is a senior majoring in Marketing with a minor in History.

War, Survival, and “Dunkirk”

By John Kirchhoefer

Grade for “Dunkirk”:  A+

Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s masterful tribute to the selfless sacrifice and patriotic integrity displayed by his countrymen in the civilian evacuation of British troops from Nazi occupied Northern France. Nolan’s reverence for the righteousness and moral character of the British people who answered the call is the running theme throughout the three converging timelines that culminate with the successful withdrawal from France. Through these three vignettes of a week (The Mole), a day (The Sea), and an hour (The Air); Nolan explores motifs such as the appreciation of home, the honor in service and sacrifice, the anxiety of war in all its fronts, and the dual nature of survival.

 

Dunkirk opens with a small group of British soldiers patrolling an eerily vacant and quiet French town as they scavenge and scrounge for anything useful they could glean: hose water, cigarette butts, Nazi propaganda repurposed as toilet paper and in an instant, all but one soldier are cut down by machine gun fire. This opening scene shows how in war a seemingly placid moment can decay in a matter of seconds. From that point on, the clock is ticking for the British and French to get off the beach before they are overrun by “The Enemy,” an unnamed nod to the facelessness and namelessness of all belligerents in wars throughout history. As the unarmed British rifleman makes his way to the soon to be abandoned beachhead, Hans Zimmer’s excellent score has begun. Throughout Dunkirk, Zimmer’s slowly progressing tempo that accompanies each new timeline continually reminds the audience of the increasing urgency of the evacuation as the advancing Enemy closes in on the Allied forces’ position. The score crescendos as the timelines converge and intensity peaks.

 

With options and resources limited, the British government executed Operation Dynamo which essentially drafted hundreds of British civilians who owned small vessels in Southeast Britain and sent them with their 850 requisitioned boats across the 20 nautical miles of the Straight of Dover in the English Channel to aid in the retreat. Nolan tells this story through the eyes of Mr. Dawson, an older man who owns the Moonstone; his teenage son, Peter; and his son’s friend, George. On their way to Dunkirk, the Moonstone rescues a marooned British soldier from his capsized ship. As the soldier pleads with Mr. Dawson to turn the boat around as continuing to France would assuredly result in their deaths, Mr. Dawson tells him, “Men my age dictate this war. Why should we be allowed to send our children to fight it?” To which, the soldier replies, “You should be at home!” Mr. Dawson poignantly implores the soldier to hold fast by telling him, “There won’t be any home if we allow a slaughter across the Channel.” This causes the soldier to grasp for the helm and accidentally knocks George down the stairs into the cabin where he sustains a head injury that would blind and eventually kill him. This scene captures many of the deeper nuances Nolan tries to express through the film. Mr. Dawson explaining that “home” will cease to exist if they fail their mission to bring the hundreds of thousands stranded British soldiers back, shows that “home” is not a place or an island, it’s the British people. A loss that significant would not only cost Britain being overrun by the Nazis due to the lack of troops left to defend the island, but British culture itself could not carry on if they were to abandon their boys on the shores of France to be slaughtered by the Nazis. The point is driven home when Commander Bolton, portrayed by the brilliant Sir Kenneth Branagh, sees the fleet of fishing, yachting, and sailing vessels and declares he sees “home.”

 

Another theme addressed in Dunkirk is sacrifice, survival, and the cost of war. In The Sea, George is an accidental casualty of “friendly fire,” but as the audience sees at the end, his sacrifice towards the war effort is no less significant and he is remembered as a “Hero at Dunkirk.” The issue Mr. Dawson and Peter face is whether or not the tradeoff of George’s life worth saving the lives of dozens of British soldiers. It is near impossible to decide whether the cost of the survival of a ship full of men is worth the life of one innocent boy. Nolan again touches on this notion of survival as victory in The Mole, when Harry Styles’ character snarks to the blind World War I veteran that “Well done? All we did was survive.” The old man responds, “That’s enough. Well done.” In The Air, the story of the two spitfire pilots was again that of self-sacrifice for the greater good. Both men knew that the spitfire engine technology was state of the art and they were under strict orders to not let it fall into the Nazis’ hands. So instead of bailing out to save their lives they both risked dying and being captured and tortured by putting the planes down and assuring they were completely destroyed. Farrier, Tom Hardy’s character, also decides to carry on dogfighting, despite being completely out of gas and gliding over the beach, in order to try and protect his countrymen as they made their way to rescue boats. Farrier’s sacrifice, like George’s, like Mr. Dawson’s, like Mr. Dawson’s RAF son, and like the rest of the Britons who risked it all to save their “home” was paramount to the survival and thus the victory of British.

John Kirchhoefer is a senior majoring in Public Administration.

The Emotional Impact of “Dunkirk”

By Madeline Phaby

Grade for “Dunkirk”:  A-

Dunkirk is a 2017 film directed by Christopher Nolan that gives a stunning account of the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk. The film’s heavy emphasis on visuals and sound rather than dialogue makes it a highly immersive experience for the viewer, while also contributing greatly to its successful portrayal of the emotional impact of war. While this alone is arguably enough to make Dunkirk an effective historical film, the lingering sense of English superiority created by certain aspects of the plot hold it back from achieving the perfect depiction of the dramatic event.

The premise of the film is to show the events of the evacuation on multiple fronts – the land (a week of action), the sea (a day of action), and the air (an hour of action). This concept mirrors the words of a speech by then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill in response to the events at Dunkirk in which he stated that the Britons would fight “on the seas and oceans,” “in the air,” and “on the beaches.” The viewer is whisked back and forth between the three storylines, which contributes to the dramatic nature of the film by often leaving the viewer in suspense as to what would happen to the characters in the previous storyline. Also contributing to this suspense is the deeply immersive nature of the directing, as the viewer is often made to feel as if they are underwater along with the soldiers frantically trying to escape their sinking ship or sinking through the air along with a pilot whose plane has been shot down. The genuine panic exhibited by the actors portraying the soldiers, relative lack of melodramatic side stories, and sole focus on the wartime action without digressions into the Homefront or British politics make the film an impressively emotionally accurate illustration of the events at Dunkirk.

Despite its numerous strong points, Dunkirk falls a bit short when it comes to historical accuracy. Although it is rather subtle, there is a pervasive sense throughout the film that English soldiers and civilians were the sole heroes responsible for the success of the evacuation. French contributions are largely ignored, and in fact, the only French soldier shown in the film wears a stolen British Army uniform and is nearly thrown off the ship because the others suspect he is a German spy. The cast of the film is also blindingly white, which does not account for the thousands of African and Indian soldiers that served in the British and French armies. While it is up to the viewer to determine whether these inaccuracies are enough to taint their opinion of the film, they are certainly worth noting. Regardless, Dunkirk is a visual masterpiece that is definitely accurate in at least one regard – its portrayal of the emotions experienced by someone who endures war.

Madeline Phaby is a freshman majoring in History.

The Immersive Experience of “Dunkirk”

By Allison Perelman

Grade for “Dunkirk”:  A+

“Dunkirk” (2017) focuses on the attempts to rescue trapped British soldiers from the French beach of Dunkirk. The story is told in three intertwining timelines: soldiers trying to survive on land, a civilian boat making its way across the channel to help in the evacuation, and fighter pilots providing air support. The film tells truths about war in a fairly accurate way, and is an enjoyable feat of cinema.

 

Christopher Nolan went to great lengths for accuracy in production. On-location filming took place at Dunkirk with authentic planes and several civilian boats that were used in the real evacuation. While young, unknown actors were astutely chosen to play the young and inexperienced soldiers, there is an inaccurate depiction of diversity. Interactions with French, Scottish, and Dutch soldiers are included, but Indian soldiers are nowhere to be seen. This lack of representation, especially in 2017, is somewhat damning for Nolan. However, those men were a small percentage of the hundreds of thousands; and this hiccup in historical accuracy doesn’t take away from the story being told.

 

The production design — limited use of CGI in favor of using actual effects — cinematography, and score/sound mixing make for an immersive experience. They capture the chaos of war. The fact that we barely know any of the characters’ names and many of them look similar also adds realism and transference. The soldiers don’t care about each others’ names or backstories because they’re all simply trying to live. Viewers don’t need to know either because these boys could be, and historically were, anyone. It doesn’t matter who they are, the cinematic elements and universal war narrative allows us to care for them and feel what they do.

 

Nolan brings a sophistication and intelligence, in only a way he could, to a genre that had become easy and predictable. The three timelines make us think about how each experience contributes to the film and history. The enemy is not seen but heard throughout because the true enemy, in any battle, is time. The aforementioned cinematic elements create suspense, anxiety, and confusion that are a part of the portrayal of war.

 

“Dunkirk” is powerful without a sense of triumph. While there is some celebration of soldiers’ survival, the film largely depicts the the non-victorious side of war. It is trauma and death, and the consequences of hard decisions. Alex (Harry Styles) embraces the warm welcome home, but it is evident in the final shots — of Farrier (Tom Hardy) being captured, and Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) seated on the train — that there is no outward pride, and uncertainty still lies.

Alison Perelman is a senior majoring in Media Journalism and Film and American Studies.

The Paradoxical Truths of “Dunkirk”

By Megan Drown

Grade for the Film:  C

Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film Dunkirk is a visually spectacular rendition of the 1940 evacuation of British and French troops from the French port city of Dunkirk. Desperately clinging to survival at all costs as their frontline is mercilessly pushed to the coast of France, British soldiers queue up to flee in an ethereal and disturbing scene of empty determination. Enemy fire rains down amongst the soldiers as men hurriedly attempt to board a ship destined for England. In part, the film’s historicity is pristine in presenting certain paradoxes of war, such as heroism and integrity versus self-preservation and brutishness. However, the film is a disconcertedly whitewashed history of the evacuation of Dunkirk in that it never harkens back to the participation of colonial units on this particular front and their integral role in providing operational support to the British and the French. Needless to say, that the film’s historicity is tinged by its lack of credibility and selectiveness in representing only white soldiers; nevertheless, it is an impressive film filled with paradoxical truths about war.

 

Nolan artfully depicts the situational urgency as scenes weave an anxiety-inducing score into ephemeral and speechless interactions between soldiers. As German fighter jets swoop down to shell the scores of soldiers lined up on the beach awaiting a murky fate, self-preservation and instinctual behavior overpower the soldiers who respond emotionlessly to the deaths of their comrades. The audience is immediately invoked with a sense of panic as it follows the storylines of Tommy and Gibson on land attempting to leave the French coast, George, Peter, and Mr. Dawson at sea sailing towards the French coast to rescue the soldiers, and Collins in the air as he attempts to fend off enemy aircraft. The film is truncated by each of these storylines, representing the three elements that need come together by the end of the film to save the forlorn soldiers. Though Nolan is criticized for not developing more personal accounts of the characters whom the film follows, obscurity of the characters’ biographical contexts is intentional. The lack of personal development is replaced by a mobility of setting which reifies the audience’s experience and places them within the discord sewn by war and political bureaucracy.

 

Two paradoxical truths emerge throughout Nolan’s temporal depiction of war. First, there is the story of Mr. Dawson who embodies this almost mythical patriotic Brit who eagerly steps up to the call of duty. Mr. Dawson’s steady and cool manner serve him, and his frantic shipmates, well as he heroically and methodically rescues soldiers from almost sure death. His integrity is amenable and his courage, awe-inspiring, as he is unrelenting in the face of tragedy and crisis. However, although he fulfills his duty in rescuing and evacuating soldiers from the English Strait and the French coast, his moral convictions come at a cost. While Mr. Dawson is steering the boat, George is fatally injured by a frantic soldier who is experiencing PTSD. He receives a blow to his head, and although Peter tends to him, he ends up dying from the head trauma. Mr. Dawson’s patriotic and heroic zeal leads him to save dozens of men at the price of a preventable and mundane casualty. Ultimately, Mr. Dawson’s tacit recognition of George’s death by a slight nod of the head reveal a stalwart commitment to his mission and acceptance of inexplicable tragedy as a cost of duty.

 

In contrast, there is the story involving Tommy, Gibson, who is a French soldier, and Alex. In an attempt to escape the coast and survive the chaos, the three young men, along with many other soldiers, hole up in an abandoned boat waiting for the tide to come in so they can float on their merry way back on home. As they wait quietly at the bottom of the ship for the tide to come in, as not to reveal themselves to German snipers, the boat is repeatedly shot at, and it begins filling with water. The naval officer on board iterates that the weight of the ship must decrease in order to keep it from sinking. In an act of self-preservation and shameless brutishness, Alex threatens Gibson, whom he suspects to be a “Gerry”, to get off the boat or be shot. Though, the weight of one soldier as compared to the thirty or so that were on board would not make much of a difference, Alex quickly denigrates into a pitiless soldier who quickly will sacrifice the life of the “other” on board to save his own skin. The scene is a poignant revelation of the pitfalls of the human spirit in times of war and chaos, and it makes one wonder – what of the colonial soldiers who were on the beach that day fighting along British soldiers? Would Alex have attempted to force colonial soldiers off board, as well? Would the British officers who decided which men were eligible to be rescued (the British but not the French) have excluded colonial soldiers from boarding the ships back to England?

Megan Drown is a senior majoring in International Studies and Economics.

Grading Historical Movies: Fedor Bondarchuk’s “Stalingrad” (2013)

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s HST/FST 252, History at the Movies, are grading historical films and offering reviews on how assigned films render the past.  The twelfth film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was Fedor Bondarchuk’s “Stalingrad” (2013).

 

Overall grade from 45 students:  B-

 

Review One

By Stephan Koclejda

Grade:  B-

Stalingrad, the 2013 film by Fyodor Bondarchuk, presents a Russian perspective on the fierce battle for the titular city with gratuitous special effects. Despite the propagandistic bookending and a contrived plot, Bondarchuk manages to craft a decent critique of the Soviet system within the film’s body.

Set in the almost mythical Pavlov’s House, a group of Russian soldiers take over the building from the Wehrmacht and discover the last remaining resident: a 19-year-old girl named Katia. The main cast of five become protectors and a pseudo-family to Katia, and themselves form the basis of Bondarchuk’s critique of the kind of patriotism in the Great Patriotic War. Everyone has been failed by the Soviet system in a way and ruined by the war. Polyakov lost his family in a bombing near the beginning, Chvanov lost his village to the Wehrmacht, Nikiforov witnessed the atrocities in Belarus and was tortured by the state after making it back to Soviet lines, Astakov was the sole survivor of his artillery battalion in an early battle, Gromov never had a chance to experience anything other than war, and Katia lost her family and neighbors to the fires of battle in Stalingrad. It points to the failures of the Stalin and the Soviet government to adequately prepare for the German invasion and the severe losses that followed in 1941. They all fight, but not for reasons like their unwavering belief in Stalin, communism, or the Soviet system. In fact, Soviet ideology fails to rear its head in the film – not a single political commissar seen amongst shots of the Red Army, nor any fervent praising of Stalin. Hauptmann Kahn, the Wehrmacht officer who was stationed in the house and is tasked with retaking it, is portrayed sympathetically even though he does brutal things like rape a civilian woman who looks like his wife and watch as his men burn a civilian woman and child to death. He blames the war for making him into a beast.

The film is bookended by odd scenes that seem to revive Soviet myth and contradict Bondarchuk’s critique: a Russian rescue mission in the rubble of the Fukushima earthquake in Japan. The narrator of the film, a doctor who is the son of Katia and Astakov, tells the story of a film to a German student trapped under rubble. These scenes make the assertion that the Soviet Union (basically Russia) saved the world by defeating the Nazis, and now continues to save it and do good. It ignores the failures of the Soviet system that Bondarchuk brought up in the war story, and makes for troublesome presentation of history in an otherwise okay Michael Bay-esque film.

Review Two

By Megan Drown

Grade:  B

An unwieldy film about the famous defense of Pavlov’s House during the Battle of Stalingrad, Fedor Bondarchuk’s film Stalingrad (2013) is an awkward and sometimes amateurish representation of a story that is the source of Russian pride. Set during November 1942, the film follows the story of five soldiers and a young woman named Katya who is a resident of the bombed out building the five men end up defending. Like many modern American war films, it is framed by a contemporary storyline: this time about an older man on a rescue mission to save people from the wreckage of the 2011 earthquake that hit Japan. The man is the son of Katya who claims to have had five fathers while consoling a young German woman – remarkably unscathed – who is trapped under the wreckage of a fallen building.

The film employs many devices to keep the audience engaged in the storyline. For example, Bondarchuk parallels the story of Katya’s character with the five men who defend her apartment building to keep the audience engaged in each of the five men’s stories. While the film has impressive visual effects and fits the chronology and events of the battle to protect Pavlov’s house, it executes the scenes, in which Wehrmacht and Red Army soldiers clash, tactlessly. There are many scenes in which the audience is left with a “WTF” feeling, most notably the scene in which one of the platoon officers and trained sniper, Chvanov, shoots a Russian woman that a quintessential conflicted Nazi Captain is sleeping with, instead of the Captain himself. If Chvanov was, in fact, seasoned by war with an insatiable vengeance towards Germans, one would assume that he would choose the Captain instead of the insignificant woman. Nonetheless, the film does contain many accurate historical elements while also evoking emotions that lead to the “shared experience” feeling so craved by American audiences.

Although Katya’s role was intended to make the audience pay more attention to the male characters (which is problematic in it and of itself), she is a charming young woman who is, perhaps, the most developed character in the entire film. This allows one to sympathize with the woman who is headstrong but melancholy; a woman who has had to bury her entire family, her neighbors, and dead children under the ruins of buildings because the cemetery was too far away to reach in the midst of war. Her naivety is almost endearing as she pleads with Captain Gromov to allow her to fight alongside the men since she is 18 years old and thus old enough to fight. Katya symbolizes a beacon of hope and light, Mother Russia one might contend, to the hardened men who come to love her in the matter of two days. Predictably, the men are so beguiled by Katya and what she represents, that they come to fight the battle for her, to protect her, rather, than to fight for home and country.

This development, however, leads to the overall quandary with the film. Is the film, in fact, a propagandistic tool to reinvigorate a sense of pride in Russians? Or maybe to reinvigorate Soviet sentimentalities to the satisfaction of a Russian leader who is nostalgic for the Soviet era? Bondarchuk has been a vocal supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his political agenda throughout this film is as conspicuous as its obvious tactical blunders. Quotes such as “There are no retards in the USSR. There are mentally ill, but no retards,” harkens back to the Stalin-era attitudes in Soviet films, films that were not allowed to portray physical weakness or discontentment of Soviet troops in any capacity. Additionally, the men in the platoon, especially Nikiforov who has been beaten and tortured by the Soviet state after being one of the lone survivors of the genocide in Belarus, have no qualms with the Soviet state. Many of the men in the platoon have experienced loss as a direct result of the Soviet state’s failure to protect its civilians, yet they fight nail and tooth for their country, aimlessly blaming the sociopathic Germans who, frankly, are annihilated in Stalingrad. Bondarchuk has called on the international community to separate his films from his political activism, but one must wonder how it is possible to separate politics from this film.

Review Three

By:  Steven Waurio

Grade:  C+

Directed by Fedor Bondarchuk, Stalingrad is an average-quality film that presents a historical moment in a surprisingly effective way.  Centered on the experience of a group of Soviet soldiers defending a strategic house near the Volga river, the film manages to raise questions about the Soviet state’s culpability for the horrors that its citizens were forced to endure–both at the hands of the Communist leadership and the German army.

In an early moment of the film, a theatrical and fairly ridiculous slow-motion hand-to-hand combat scene makes it abundantly clear to the audience that Bondarchuk will prioritize visual effects over compelling narrative in his attempt to tell a story of one of the bloodiest battles in human history.  This tone is established early on and kept through the remainder of the film, but I don’t mean to suggest that the storytelling itself doesn’t have value.  Despite the somewhat un-imaginative overall narrative, the main characters in the film each represent an accurate understanding of Soviet and World War II history.  The Soviet soldiers are all characterized with motivations that have historical merit, and they all display significant burdens brought upon by the events of the war.  Two of the soldiers, Gromov and Nikiforov, have been rendered brutal by their experiences of war–Gromov as an officer who has never loved anyone or had a home, and Nikiforov as a volunteer who endured a horror of combat against Nazis only to be questioned and tortured later by his own Soviet state.  A third soldier, Astakhov, became combat and gun shy after his entire artillery unit was decimated.  And the final two Soviets, Polyakov and Chvanov, had civilian loved ones die at the hands of the German advance.  Similarly, the depiction of the woman in the household, Katya, presents a reflection of what the experience of a citizen in Stalingrad might have been like.  Her character is implied to have endured various forms of assault during the Nazi occupation, and, through accusing the Soviet soldiers of failing to protect the city, she indirectly accuses the Soviet state as a whole of failing to respond to the Nazi advance.

These depictions imply, at the very least, some connection to the Soviet state’s complete lack of preparedness for the German invasion.  They force the audience to ask, “If Stalin had reacted to the clear indications of impending invasion, would the first three soldiers mentioned have had to see so many of their comrades die?  Would the last two soldiers have had to lose their loved ones?  Would Katya have had to endure the awful experience of Nazi occupation?”  This is particularly important in a modern Russian political climate in which the state has revived the Soviet war cult and begun to more actively censor media critical of Russian or Soviet leadership.  While Bondarchuk’s Stalingrad falls short in many ways as a work of film and art, it stands out for its truth and accuracy in depicting Soviets’ experiences of World War II.

Review Four

By:  Aleah Sexton

Grade:  A-

Stalingrad, the 2013 Russian film directed by Fedor Bondarchuk, explores the heroism and bravery of a unit of five men during the roughest hours of Stalingrad.

The narrator of the film is the son of a young woman, Katya. He tells the story of how each of the five men are his “fathers.” Sergey, a young man recently drafted, is the true father to Katya’s son. The men and Katya grow fond of one another and use the mutually beneficial relationship to find hope and peace from the destruction and chaos surrounding them. As a parallel, there is another love story between a German officer and a Russian commoner, Masha. This relationship is forced; it’s obvious Masha is only “reciprocating” towards the officer for her own protection. Bondarchuk uses these contrasting love stories to play into Nazi stereotypes and build upon the courageous nature of the Red Army during this brutal period. The rhetoric of the Soviet soldiers appears to be selfishness, as they care for each other and the citizens. They place the good of the country above their own desires. This is used to contrast the Nazi sentiment, as officer Kahn continually visits Masha when his men are fighting. The unit of men guarding Katya are gentle, while officer Kahn rapes Masha. Stalingrad genuinely portrays the absolute despair of current-day Volgograd and introduces the various ways war goes beyond the frontlines. The story incorporates the narrator at the beginning and ending scenes, as he comforts German victims in Japan after the 2011 tsunami. Sergey tells the story of his five fathers to calm the victims as they await help. The introduction and conclusion of the narrator plays into the storyline that the Russians are courageous and selfless. By making the victims German, this adds another layer of complexity when the temporal setting changes to Stalingrad.

Based on historian Robert Rosenstone’s analysis of historical films, Stalingrad is a prime example of a dramatic feature film. The dramatic film “aims directly at the emotions” and “individuals are at the centre of the historical process”. Stalingrad used Hollywood tactics to incorporate love and action to revoke specific emotions from the audience. The story of the five fathers is explained with a dramatized plotline to fully engage the audience. Stalingrad does not portray the Soviets as victims to Nazis, but instead instills Americanized notions of heroism to focus on the bravery of the Stalingrad soldiers. The dramatic feature film also places an emphasis on “the visual and aural, and the resulting embodied quality of the film experience in which we seem to live through events we witness on the screen”. The camera angle, music, acting, and overall quality of Stalingrad gives the audience an experience to live in the moment of the battle and feel the anxiousness of the soldiers. Stalingrad is a successful modern war movie in that it educates the audience on the truth of the war, although it was at parts glamorized.

Review Five

By Adam Ring

Grade:  B-

This movie is intense. That initially could go one of two ways, and unfortunately in this case, the intensity actually encumbers the historical authenticity of the movie. That is not to say themes and messages don’t emerge from studying the characters, but overly-dramatic imagery and unnecessary melodrama get in the way far too often. However, once the audience is able to get past all these exaggerated aspects, an interesting message is revealed: the Soviet Union is ultimately to blame for the five main Russian soldiers’ demise.

There are essentially two sub-stories going on: that of the Russians and that of the Germans. On the German side, the interaction between Hauptmann Kahn and Oberstleutnant Henze is particularly interesting. As Kahn objects to Henze locking a mother and her child in a bus and proceeding to burn them alive, Henze compares what he is doing to “sacrifices their ancestors made”. He is committing the most heinous of all war crimes, and yet it does not bother him one bit. This makes Kahn more human, if that is even possible. The war has turned him into a beast, but he was not always like that. He does not possess the same radicalized Nazification that Henze does.

On the Russian side, the movie primarily focuses around a group of soldiers taking cover in a building. These men all have backstories, and as the movie progresses, the audience is able to learn what these men have metaphorically brought with them to war—lots of “baggage”. Perhaps most striking is the interaction between Gromov and Chvanov. After Chvanov helps Katya shoot a German filling up a barrel of water, Gromov shouts that “even animals don’t kill at the waterside”. In his response, the audience learns what Chvanov thinks of the Germans: “Kill them each time you see them”. Later in the film, the audience learns the source of this intense hatred: Nazi soldiers brutally murdered and raped his family. Each of the other four remaining characters have backstories that matter, but what is most important is to analyze why they do. Fyodor Bondarchuk seems to suggest an answer: these soldiers have had bad pasts, then they fight in the war, and then they die. The soldiers are victims of the Soviet Union in every sense.

Lastly, Katia deserves some serious analysis. In many historical films, there is often a “biggest loser”, or, in other words, one single person who suffers the most. Katia unfortunately claims this title. She didn’t ask for the invasion of Stalingrad. Yet, after Stalin ignored credible intel that the Germans would be attacking, she is left to deal with the death and destruction that the invasion brings. Of all the characters, she is the only one not to perish at the end. As an added bonus, she is impregnated with a child from one of the Russian soldiers, all of whom are dead.

This movie has a legitimate message to convey: people come to war with metaphorical baggage, and often end up worse off or dead by the end. So who is to blame? A very plausible suggestion is the Soviet Union, an empire that made the invasion of Stalingrad a lot worse because of inaction. And these five Russian soldiers, and especially Katia, suffer dearly for it.

Review Six

By Madeline Phaby

Grade:  C

Stalingrad is a 2013 Russian film directed by Fedor Bondarchuk and set mainly during the 1942 Battle of Stalingrad. Its principal historical merit is in its accurate depiction of the often-devastating effects that World War II had on everyone involved – both in and out of combat. Unfortunately, much of this merit is lost in the film’s melodramatic love stories, relatively unnecessary special effects, and most of all, the incredibly bizarre plotline. Although these aspects did not explicitly detract from the parts of the film that were historically accurate and realistic, the overemphasis on “Hollywood-esque” techniques and a littering of pro-Russian propaganda strip Stalingrad of much of its historical relevance.

The film begins on a rather confusing note, as it does not initially take place in the USSR at all – or during WWII, for that matter. In the opening scene, a Russian man is attempting to rescue five German children who have been trapped under rubble during a 2011 earthquake in Japan. The man starts to tell one of the German girls the story of how he had “five fathers”, and the viewer is then launched into a flashback. This flashback does take place during the Battle of Stalingrad, and it consumes the majority of the film. In this flashback, the narrator introduces and follows the experiences of five Soviet soldiers who encounter a young woman named Katya when they set themselves up in Pavlov’s House, her place of residence. The soldiers take a liking to Katya, who has witnessed the deaths of all the other inhabitants of the house, even though she is initially critical of the Red Army’s performance in defending the city. That Katya has very clearly been battered by the war enough to express such frustration is a surprisingly clear criticism of the USSR’s unpreparedness for the war and is an incredibly historically significant portion of the film. Katya, however, is not the only one who has been ruined by the war – the soldiers all have their own backstories that have shaped their personalities. For example, Polyakov’s wife and young daughter were killed in an air raid, Nikiforov’s successful career as an opera singer came to a screeching halt when he signed up for the war, and Chvanov developed a blinding hatred for Germans when they burned his home village down. This portrayal of the soldiers as humans rather than blindly patriotic minions who fought exclusively for Stalin is one of the most important aspects of the film. However, far more emphasis is placed on the love story between Katya and Sergey, one of the “five fathers” who is the narrator’s actual father, as well as the special effects that make all of the combat scenes in the film completely unrealistic and overly grandiose. In addition, although the “five fathers” are clearly disillusioned with the war, they are still cited by the narrator as the reason that he “never had to experience war,” thus making them his heroes despite all dying before the narrator’s birth. This, coupled with the obvious social commentary presented by the narrator, a Russian, saving the five German children, turns this potentially accurate and thought-provoking film into little more than a continuation of the highly problematic “savior complex” that plagues Russian memory of its “Great Patriotic War”.

Review Seven

By Blake Mullenix

Grade:  B-

Stalingrad (2013), directed by Fedor Bondarchuk, is a frustrating film. The film’s
opening and closing scenes, along with Hollywood-style heroics and special effects, distract the
viewer from the numerous truths it reveals.

Stalingrad is historically satisfying in that it highlights seldom discussed topics in Russia such as the unpreparedness of the Soviet Union upon the June 1941 invasion. Using five Red Army soldiers, Bondarchuk is able to uncover truths about World War II. Through Nikiforov, viewers are reminded of the atrocities against Soviet citizens, but also of the brutality of the Soviet state. Nikiforov became lost, but by the time he regrouped with other soldiers, he was interrogated by the state as though he was an enemy or a deserter. The character Astakhov is a physical reminder of how unprepared the Soviet Union
was upon German invasion. He was the sole survivor of a formally trained, artillery unit.
Because of the horrors he experienced, he freezes during the Battle of Stalingrad and is branded
by the others as “Sissy.”

Where Stalingrad excels in portraying the variability of Red Army soldiers, it falters in
its depiction of the Wehrmacht. There are really only two Wehrmacht soldiers that Stalingrad
allows audiences a close look at. From a Russian standpoint, Kahn is portrayed in an unique
manner. Kahn is portrayed in a stereotypical, beast-like fashion at times, like when he rips off the
clothes of a Russian woman before he rapes her. Conversely, Kahn is humanized when he
contemplates his actions and says, “I came here as a soldier, but you turned me into a beast.”
And while the depiction of Kahn as ambiguous strengthens Stalingrad’s significance as a
historical film, the character Henze does not. Henze is a character for audiences to root against
and hate in every aspect. Henze is portrayed as pure evil and what real Nazi soldiers are like in
the eyes of Russians.

Although the depictions of the Wehrmacht are questionable, they are not, however, the
most troubling aspect of the film. Three major issues stuck out in this film. The first, and most
minor, is the excessive, Hollywood-like use of special effects. While this did not devalue
Stalingrad as a historical film, it could distract one from truths exposed in the film. The second
issue involves the battle scenes. In every fighting sequence, the Red Army is portrayed as brave,
tactical, and fighting to the very end. For example, at one point Red Army soldiers engulfed in
flames are still fighting Wehrmacht soldiers. Finally, and the most troubling aspect of the film is
the opening and closing scene. The film oddly tries to connect the 2011 earthquake at Fukushima
to the Battle of Stalingrad. Additionally, in the closing lines of the film the narrator posits the
idea that the Red Army turned the tide of “human history,” and thus saved the world. For
everything that Stalingrad does well, especially as a historical film, it fails to establish itself as
an overall satisfying film.

Review Eight

By Paige Ross

Grade:  B

Set two months into the six month struggle that would mark the Battle of Stalingrad as the defining moment of World War II and one of the bloodiest in world history, Stalingrad tells the story of five Soviet soldiers through the recollection of the narrator; whose father was one of the five. In addition to providing context to the emotional aspects of the battle in November 1942, Stalingrad is also a story of love, loss, and the permanent consequences of war. Utilizing emotional appeals, a profound score, and an interwoven dynamic of love and compassion on both sides of the battle, the film captures the essence of war and the senselessness of violent human conflict. The larger “truth” Stalingrad portrays is that of humanity lost, the base brutality of war, and of the acute pain felt by both the Allied and Axis forces.

The film is a well-rounded, historically sound, and dynamic examination of the roles of both the Soviet and German forces involved in the Second World War. Throughout the film, the characters struggle with moral dilemmas that highlight the impossibilities and ambiguities of a conflict such as war: the sequence in which Katya accidentally shoots a German soldier getting water leading Gromov to scold Chvanov for killing an unarmed man, the latter replies, “I don’t give a damn if he’s drinking, eating or shitting. I killed him and I’ll keep on killing.” Chvanov’s callous disregard for the life an unarmed German soldier due to trauma he witnessed at the hands of Wehrmacht illustrates the ever-present pain of the Soviet past. The central conflict presented in the German ranks is the disillusionment of Hauptmann Peter Kahn and his subsequent relationship with a Russian woman named Masha. Early in the film, it is evident that despite prestige and decoration, Kahn is growing restless with the war and its escalating extremity. In a particularly disturbing sequence in which a mother and her young daughter are burned alive after being suspected Jews, Kahn shows obvious disgust and refuses to watch “the sacrifice.” Repeatedly, Kahn is ostracized and reprimanded for his relationship with Masha and he refuses to harm her or send her away, fighting for her safety until the final minutes of the film. While the film indulges in a considerable amount of contrived melodrama, Stalingrad nonetheless helps to convey a sense of history in which the diverse experiences of the Soviet population, various war atrocities, and the Holocaust are explored. Stalingrad’s ability to examine fault and compassion in both the enemy and the victor is one of the paramount strengths of the film as both a work of history and an examination of humanity.