Blu-Ray Distributed By: Synapse Films
Blu-ray Release: December 8, 2015
Director: Sebastian Dehnhardt, Christian Deick, Jorg Mullner
Reviewed By James M. Dubs
I’ll watch anything…including Stalingrad.
Synapse Films concurrently released Nazi propaganda masterpiece Triumph of the Will and the 2003 International Emmy nominated, WWII documentary miniseries Stalingrad on blu-ray with brand new HD transfers. I previously reviewed Triumph of the Will to discover it to be both an exceptional and frustrating release due to some strange technical decisions. The “uncut” documentary miniseries Stalingrad also proves to be both excellent and slightly frustrating in many regards, all of which I will explain below.
The Battle of Stalingrad, waged from August 1942 to February 1943 during World War II, is considered to be one of the largest and bloodiest battles in the history of warfare. It is estimated that as many as 2 million people were wounded, captured, or killed during the campaign and the battle consisted largely of Russian and German soldiers but also included many from the Romanian and Hungarian forces. Roughly 500,000 Soviet soldiers would lose their lives. The Germans would sacrifice nearly 200,000 in an effort to hold Stalingrad at all costs, and the efforts would be fruitless. The battle proved to be a turning point in the war and this new blu-ray chronicles the fight in three parts.
Part 1: The Attack
In the summer of 1942, Hitler targets the Volga river, the longest and largest river in Europe, and a major artery for the Soviet’s Red Army supply chain. Hitler orders the German 6th army to cross the Volga and take the city of Stalingrad. He does this largely because of the city’s shared name with his enemy, Stalin. Meanwhile, as the German forces are descending upon the city, Stalin forbids the residents from leaving in a misguided and arrogant show of resistance. The Germans bomb the city into ruins and the 6th Army, expecting a quick victory, are surprised when, among the decimated houses, they are forced into a style of close quarters, hand-to-hand combat for which they are not accustomed. The Soviet Army would surround 300,000 German troops in what the Germans would call “The Kessel” (The Cauldron).
Part II: The Kessel
Instead of the expected quick victory, there is only the occasional skirmish. What the 6th Army doesn’t realize is that there are nearly one million Red Army soldiers itching for a fight and ready to tighten the “noose of steel” around the German soldiers. When the Russians attack they hit hard with rockets and bombs. They quickly take out the Romanian Army to weaken the Axis ranks, but at great loss to the Russians. The Germans attempt to break out of the pocket known as “The Kessel”, and nearly succeed, but the Soviet Army ultimately pins them down. Hitler’s hubris prevents him from accepting reality and he orders his men to hold Stalingrad at all costs. The German 6th Army are stuck and with the unrelenting icy winter pressing down on them, and supplies dwindling, they soon realize that their doom is quickly approaching.
Part III: The Doom
The German soldiers are caught in a trap. The Red Army attempts to conduct an agreement for the German forces surrender, but Hitler refuses. The men are left to die, starve, freeze, and some succumb to Typhoid fever before the battle ends. Without supplies, many turn to eating whatever they can and eventually turn to cannibalism. The Soviet’s convince a few to defect, but most German’s remain loyal and most will suffer before they die. The lucky ones will be captured but won’t return home for 16 years.
While watching Stalingrad, it was immediately apparent that this would not be your typical “Nazi’s are evil” narrative. In Part I: The Attack a small amount of time is spent describing a scene where Nazi SS commanders murder entire Jewish families, but the bulk of the documentary is focused away from these typical WWII story devices and focuses much more successfully on the men, women, and children devastated by this battle. The filmmakers weave a dense tapestry of historical facts, confessions, and eyewitness accounts from survivors, wives, sons, and daughters from both the Russian and German perspectives.
The strength of the film comes from moving away from the typical ideologies of the men waging the wars and focuses more squarely on the individuals and their struggles to survive and fight for the country that orders them to do so. One of the more heartbreaking stories, and one that encapsulates the tone overall, comes from a German widow and mother. The English narration translates her interview with the following statement, “We were powerless. We couldn’t say ‘I don’t like this. This isn’t for me.’ Those are things that are inconceivable to today’s young people. We simply had to accept our fate.” Her husband will never come home and the child she carries will be born on her husband’s birthday.
In another story, the wife of a 6th Army tank driver describes her desperate attempt to keep him from harm by hiding the telegram requesting his return to service. When a second telegram arrives, she knows she can’t keep it from him. Her husband must return to war or face a death sentence for failing to report for duty.
Many other stories are told from undelivered “letters to home” and express a tone of despair from both sides of the battle. These stories are not the generalities that we hear and see in most WWII documentaries. These are the voices of real people, with families, and a home. Most of the men write about missing their wives and children. One soldier even writes home to inform his wife that he wants her to remarry because he knows death is near.
As emotionally charged as many of the interviews are, I still felt disconnected as a whole from the entire events. I believe this is in large part due to the English dubbed narration. Some of the interviewees are giving moving speeches in their native German or Russian language. Unfortunately that emotion is fogged by American voice actors narrating. From a technical standpoint, the narration is fine, but an option for original language track with subtitles could have easily remedied this problem.
My largest complaint about this release will sound like such a small thing, but I believe has a major impact. Of the vast amount of interviews, not once are the interviewees identified with a title card detailing, name, rank, title, relationship to persons, age, etc. The documentary is filled with “talking heads” that all have incredible stories, but in many cases you don’t know who the person is or if they are speaking on behalf of the German or Russian side. Many times my concentration shifted because I was focused on the dialect or language to identify nationality of the person before refocusing on the English translation. This would pull me out of the flow of every interview. Beyond the act of simply taking in information, the lack of titles also undercuts the emotional integrity of the stories. Are you more likely to be emotionally invested in a person if you know their name or if they are random German soldier #42?
Admittedly, I think I’m just disappointed because a few small changes like title cards and subtitles would have made this a five star experience. Stalingrad is a very strong documentary that covers a lot of information in just under 3 hours. Some of it lags in a “paint by numbers” narration style of storytelling and it sometimes repeats information. But much of it excels in the humanization of the struggles that happened on a frozen battlefield.
Overall, the film is incredibly effective, which is probably why it was nominated for an International Emmy. According to the Synapse Films press release, the filmmakers were even granted exclusive access to the Russian archives and provided a wealth of previously unreleased materials allowing them to form a cohesive narrative from both sides of battle. The real tale of Stalingrad isn’t a good vs. evil story. It’s a tragedy.
Video & Audio Rating:
The documentary has a mixture of interviews, B-roll filmed in HD, and rare B&W footage shot by soldiers. The image is acceptable for a documentary and the B&W footage is quite striking and remarkable.
The DTS-HD 2.0 stereo audio is crisp, clean and without fault. The only criticism, which I’ve already highlighted, comes from the English language dubbing which works technically, but I suspect detracts from the emotional impact of the original interviews.
- Recollections: Deleted Interview Segments (17:18, HD) – A brief collection of interview segments in original language with English subtitles (!)
- Video Interview with Dr. Guido Knopp (11:14, HD) – Dr. Knopp served as producer of the documentary. This interview gives voice to his expertise on Stalingrad as well as his motivations for making the film. Once again, the audio is original language track with English subtitles (!)
- Stalingrad Today: Views of the City of Volgograd (3:03, HD) – A series of B-roll footage strung together and overlaid with the dramatic and haunting score.
2003 marked the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad, and at the time the filmmakers strove to produce a film that personified the unnecessary and nonsensical suffering on both sides of the battle. The filmmakers largely succeeded. Stalingrad is honest in its approach, avoiding the draw to take sides and simply expose the stories from within.
Synapse Films has created yet another solid release in their catalog with a great HD transfer and collection of extras. Stalingrad proves to be a solid film that will appeal to WWII history enthusiasts and casual viewers alike.