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“Stalingrad” confronts the disturbing realities of fascism and war

Russian war epic holds lessons for U.S. audiences on modern day crisis in Ukraine
By Dave Schneider |
March 18, 2014
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Fighting at Stalingrad
Fighting at Stalingrad

Last year, I might have thought of Stalingrad as an interesting history lesson. But when I sat down in the theater to watch the new Russian war epic last weekend, all I could think about was the crisis in Ukraine.

In less than four months time, the world watched a large, right-wing movement in Ukraine force a democratically elected government from power and replace it with a coalition ranging from far-right oligarchs to out-and-out Nazis. Russia responded to the new fascist-led government by condemning the undemocratic takeover and stationing troops in Crimea, a small region in the southeast of Ukraine comprised of a majority ethnic Russians.

The move by Putin drew condemnation from all the usual players in the Western world, including U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. While Russia defends its defensive posture out of concern at the fascist takeover, pundits in the West ridicule them and downplay the very real threat of a fascist Ukraine, the largest country on Russia's western border. The New York Times, for instance, ran an op-ed titled “Putin's Phantom Pogroms,” that argued – against all evidence – that Russia's concern was a cynical ploy to dominate Ukraine. Funny, of course, for a newspaper that has a history of defending the U.S.'s many wars of aggression.

But the threat of fascism in Ukraine matters a lot to the Russian people, and movie-goers in the U.S. would do well to see Stalingrad to better understand why.

Stalingrad focuses on a small band of Soviet soldiers trying to defend a key neighborhood from the Nazi invaders. The neighborhood is situated in front of a major Red Army supply route, making the stakes incredibly high. Made up of a few sailors and the survivors of a war-weary combat unit, the group makes a courageous stand against the German occupation at great cost to themselves.

You see the devastation wreaked by the Nazis on the Soviet Union on full display in the film. The neighborhood where the bulk of the film takes place is full of wreckage and dilapidated buildings. Food is scarce, and fresh water is even harder to find. Having executed most of the men left in the city, the Nazis regularly terrorize women and children in the most barbaric ways, giving the audience a glimpse of the horror of Nazi occupation. They rape Soviet women, withhold food and basic goods from the population, and forcibly relocate entire neighborhoods of people.

In one particularly disturbing scene, a sadistic German lieutenant orders all of the women and children in the neighborhood to line up at gun point. He randomly accuses a darker skinned woman and her child of being Jewish, and the Nazi soldiers force them into a wooden structure and burn them alive. Other films on Nazi occupation explore this element of fascist violence, like the 1985 Soviet film Come and See, but Stalingrad shows how these acts of barbarism outraged ordinary working people enough to give their lives in order to drive the Germans back to Berlin. Anyone following the events in Ukraine will have a better understanding of why the rise of fascism in the neighboring country is so terrifying to the Russian people.

One point that stands out in Stalingrad is the class composition of the Red Army and the class consciousness of the ordinary soldiers fighting German occupation. One soldier reminds another during a dispute that they are fighting in a “worker and peasant army,” showing how ordinary Soviet soldiers conceived of the war in class terms. Another soldier, who remains silent for most of the film, is revealed as a factory worker with an incredible talent for singing. His factory committee, recognizing his talent, sent him to Moscow to sing in operas and arias. Although the film shows us that he is a well-known celebrity, we find out he enlisted in the Red Army the day after the German invasion in 1941.

Contrast that with just about any U.S. war film. Movies like Platoon show working class people in the U.S. forcibly drafted into the military to fight wars on behalf of the rich. Some justify it to themselves in nationalistic terms, but most soldiers were forced to risk their lives because of their class background.

In Stalingrad, the workers fighting Nazi occupation have pride in their class, not just their country, which directly contrasts with the Nazi soldiers. At one point, a German officer tries to psyche his soldiers up to storm the Red Army's neighborhood base by telling them that they will conquer India after defeating the USSR. Addressing a battalion made up of many child soldiers, some no older than 13, he talks about Indian women in the most racist terms and explains the Nazi imperialist project as their reason for fighting. Stalingrad highlights that while the Nazis fought for colonial and imperialist expansion, the Soviet Red Army fought for freedom from the jackboot of fascism.

Technically speaking, the cinematography of Stalingrad is masterful, which was released in IMAX 3-D. An early scene features a large battalion of Soviet soldiers storming a Nazi fuel bunker from the water. The amphibious landing blows up in their face – literally – as the Nazi commanding officers destroy the bunker in order to prevent the Red Army from capturing the fuel. The enormous explosion is only outdone by the sight of Soviet soldiers, burning alive from the oil fire, bravely charging the German barricade and tackling Nazi soldiers to the ground to also burn. Released the same weekend as 300: Rise of an Empire, the sequel to the racist fantasy war epic of the same name, Stalingrad provides all of the stunning visuals and thrills while remaining rooted in reality.

All of that said, you can tell Stalingrad was made in the Russian Federation, and not the Soviet Union, more than 20 years after the restoration of capitalism. The film mentions the Soviet Union and bits of dialogue pay homage to socialism, but the tone of the film is more nationalistic than any World War II films produced in the USSR. After the film, I couldn't help but contrast Stalingrad with Come and See, which focused on the Belarusian resistance to brutal Nazi occupation. If Come and See is the Apocalypse Now of Soviet war films, Stalingrad was much more like Saving Private Ryan. The political nature of the events on-screen is purposely toned down to emphasize the visuals and the plot, which might make the film disappointing to some Soviet history buffs.

The people of the former Soviet Union take the threat of fascism very seriously, and Stalingrad clearly articulates why they should. Most histories of World War II in the West would have us believe that the U.S. single-handedly defeated Hitler. Ultimately, this is why Stalingrad is such an important film for people in the U.S. to see. Of the 60 million people who died in World War II, the Soviet Union bore the brunt of the war against fascism, suffering more than 7 million military deaths and millions of other civilian deaths. Even the highest death tolls for the U.S. place the military death toll no higher than 420,000.

Stalingrad forces us to confront the reality of fascism and war from the perspective of Russians, which is more important than ever before with recent developments in Ukraine. The Soviet Union is gone, but the people of Russia all have parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents who paid the ultimate sacrifice defeating fascism during World War II. For people in the U.S., World War II films like Stalingrad provide important ground for discussing the roles of other nationalities in defeating the Nazis, which is often downplayed in Hollywood. Stalingrad provides such discussions, and that alone makes it worth the ticket price.

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