Stalingrad (1993) Analysis: Snow and Blood

Welcome back to Sculpting in Frames. There are four essential war movies I recommend to people.

  1. Apocalypse Now
  2. Paths of Glory
  3. Come and See
  4. Stalingrad

You can probably guess from the title of this which one we’re going to talk about. If you haven’t seen this movie then you absolutely have to watch it.

Go on. I’ll wait.

Good wasn’t it? If you just watched the 2013 Stalingrad then congratulations, you played yourself and sat through a truly terrible movie. Maybe I’ll even cover it in a future video but I find it more productive to praise a movie that’s good than sit here and talk about one that isn’t. Also, the less said about Enemy at the Gates — the better.

So here’s Stalingrad, the good one.

Released in 1993 and directed by German filmmaker Joseph Vilsmair, Stalingrad a powerful and unflinching brutal tale following the doomed soldiers of the 6th Army as they fight for control of Stalingrad in the bloodiest battle of human history. It is a film of epic scope and scale, yet it also tells a personal story of what human beings are capable of.

At its core, Stalingrad follows the same message as all great war films — that war is hell. Like the films mentioned earlier, Stalingrad expertly deconstructs the glamour and excitement of war and gives us an honest portrait of the horrors endured on the Eastern Front. It asks us to consider whether an idea or a flag is worth dying for, or killing for.

We follow a company of soldiers who are taken from their leave in Italy to fight in the upcoming Operation Blue, the advance on Stalingrad. They leave confident of victory, safe in the knowledge of their superiority against the enemy. The Wehrmacht in 1942 was the best fighting force in the world — and the 6th Army was the strongest formation within it.

Yet, quite soon after the arrival in Stalingrad, the film takes a dark turn. Grand battles which we see in the first half-hour begin to slowly tighten in scale and shrink in scope as the Germans advance deeper into the black heart of the city. Valsmair pulls a smart reverse move by doing this, as the film goes on the fighting becomes less and less of what we’d expect from a war film. Stalingrad becomes a horror where the monster is man.

The whole film serves its purpose of warning against the terrible nature of war. We see our characters endure incredible discomfort, loss and pain all for in the name of their authoritarian regimes, often pointlessly. For example, Witzland leads his men into the sewers and desperately attempts to rescue his wounded comrade only for him to die in the overcrowded field hospital, screaming and in utter agony. There is no glamour to death, no heroic sacrifice. Characters die suddenly and are never mourned. It is a sad testament to the horrors of industrial war.

As the encirclement of Stalingrad is completed, at about the halfway point in the film, we see a tonal shift to an even darker area of war. As order and supplies break down within the pocket, the soldiers begin to slowly starve and freeze to death. There is much to be said for the shots in Stalingrad, composed like paintings they highlight the sheer force of the Soviets and the elements against the 6th Army, evoking comparisons of Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Russia.

To highlight the anti-war message, Stalingrad shows us the crimes these men committed against the Russian people. They show us the breakdown of the chain of command in such scenes as the one at Pitomnick Airfield where men clamber over one another in a desperate attempt to leave the kessel. Or later in the snowfields where the men kill a superior officer. The elite of the German Army visibly melts into the snow. They are transformed and by the end of the film they are little more than starved bandits, marked for death in an impossible struggle.

A scene that comes to mind, when thinking of Stalingrad’s portrayal of the cruelty of war, comes near the end of the film; our soldiers, reduced to eating leather, find a supply drop put down by the Luftwaffe. Inside is not food or water — but medals. Useless metal for men who would soon be, in some cases, reduced to cannibalism.

Stalingrad is a harsh film, it tells some ugly truths. It reminds us that there is no such thing as the ‘good guys’in war. There is great evil on both sides, but there is also kindness and a common ground to be found. And it is in these moments where Stalingrad is its most tragic; moments of fleeting humanity in the most inhuman of conflicts.

As the 6th Army surrenders and the tide turns in the 2nd World War, we see Witzland and Reiser sitting in the snowfields, the Witzland dies in the corporal’s arms as he speaks of the warmth of the deserts and the many stars of the night sky. They both perish together, but they are alone and thousands of miles from home. Two bodies leaning against one another, a speck of grey in the immense vastness of the Volga steppe. Surrounded by land which had devoured them.

There are few anti-war statements in film that are more powerful than the final minutes of Stalingrad.