Violating the dead

Two books tell the truth about Stalingrad, the most horrific battle of our time -- and a movie desecrates it.

Published March 28, 2001 8:38PM (EST)

As I walked out of Jean-Jacques Annaud's "Enemy at the Gates," I found myself wondering: How much historical respect does a director owe a subject like Stalingrad? I don't know, but I do know that Annaud doesn't have enough.

Most of the people who are flocking to see the film, which is this week's third-highest grossing release in the country, are presumably drawn to it by word of mouth about its big-budget opening battle scene and its catchy plot, a duel between two master snipers. If they know anything at all about the battle of Stalingrad, however, I hope they're leaving the theater feeling vaguely uneasy -- if not outraged.

Why? Because World War II's Stalingrad is just too momentous, too epic, too dreadful an event in the history of this century to be used, as Annaud uses it, as a mere colorful background for a formulaic genre film. "Saving Private Ryan," despite its sentimentality, not only brought the terrible reality of the Omaha Beach landing home to viewers in a way no film had done before, it remained essentially true to the grim realities of being a G.I. on combat patrol -- due allowances being made for Hollywood license. War is hell from the beginning of Spielberg's film, and it stays hell until the end. In "Enemy at the Gates," war starts out as hell, then it turns into heck and stays there.

That would be bad enough, though hardly unexpected, if this were just another glib, conventional war movie, unable to reconcile the demands of bloody realism with Hollywood's usual feelgood requirements. But this is a movie about Stalingrad -- the worst battle of the worst war in human history, a war that ended not so very long ago. It is almost unbelievable, and historically offensive, that a filmmaker would choose this story, spend close to $100 million reproducing its ninth-circle-of-hell atmosphere -- right down to the Russian city's bizarre fountain, with statues of children playing ring-around-the-rosie around an alligator -- and blithely toss it all away to make a hackneyed "duel" movie, essentially an updated western complete with a ridiculously contrived love triangle, in which the battle itself is reduced to nothing more than a visually stimulating backdrop. Is World War II so meaningless to us now, so distant, that its most hideous battle can simply be turned into aesthetic wallpaper?

By an odd coincidence, Stalingrad reared its head before I had even heard of Annaud's film. Poking around the stacks of books in the office recently, I chanced to pick up a book called "Stalingrad 1942-1943: The Infernal Cauldron." I had been something of a military history buff when a teenager, and knew a little about Stalingrad: It was one of the decisive battles of World War II, shifting the tide on Germany's invasion of Russia. It went on for close to six months, turned a large city into rubble and left over a million men dead. I also remembered from William L. Shirer's biography that it was Hitler who was responsible for trapping his troops in the ruined city in the heart of winter. The German 6th Army was surrounded, but it still might have been able to break out -- if the Fuhrer had given the order. But obsessed with the symbolism of the struggle over a city named after Stalin, and willing to sacrifice a quarter of a million men to make the point that "Where the soldier of Germany sets foot, there he remains!" Hitler refused. Those German troops who were not slaughtered by the Russians or killed by starvation, cold or disease finally surrendered: 95 percent of them died as well.

As a teenager I also read a little paperback called "Last Letters From Stalingrad." The letters, which were purportedly written by the doomed German soldiers caught in the Russian vise, were heartbreaking: searing final testaments written by men who knew they were going to die. I have since learned that they were probably fakes, but they made a powerful impression on me at the time.

That was the sum total of my knowledge of Stalingrad as, casting about for something to read one night, I opened Stephen Walsh's oversize, lavishly illustrated book.

As one gets older, certain historical events that are receding into the past suddenly play an odd trick: They get closer. Although the war ended only eight years before I was born, it never felt even slightly contemporary to me when I was a teenager. It was a grand clash of men and weapons that had happened in some distant, parallel universe. It might as well have been the Crusades.

It feels a lot closer now. Part of the reason is the simple passage of time: As you get older, the entire shape of your own life starts coming into view, and you realize that 50 years isn't the eternity you once thought it was. Then there's death. You know it slightly better, and this knowledge somehow keeps every fatality in front of you, like a wrong answer, a flaw in God's eye, a nightmare that you're condemned to keep seeing again and again. But remembering what happened -- what really happened, not the neat, bugle-playing death of the old movies but the screaming, incomprehensible pain and terror of actual war -- is more than just a nightmare. It's an act of solidarity, of acknowledgment -- your own hands reaching up to ring the bell that tolls for all of us.

Stalingrad was not the Holocaust, but its scale, its bleakness, its challenge to morality, to faith in a meaningful universe, demands an act of memory. That is the homage the present owes to the past.

And as I read Walsh's book -- and then, drawn hopelessly into the battle's consuming, hypnotic void, the definitive work on Stalingrad, Antony Beevor's 1998 masterpiece "Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943" -- a whole army of ghosts rose up.

That regiment of young Russian recruits who died on top of an ancient Tartar burial mound, saving the city by holding the city's high ground for an hour -- they were over there, behind the parking lot, invisible, dug in, realer than you or me. The German schoolteacher with the copy of Goethe in his pocket, cut down by a machine gun burst as he hid amid the mannequins on the second floor of the Univermag department store -- he was there too. So were the Communist officers who shot their own troops as they tried to retreat, and the German doctors who had the chance to take the last flight out of hell but refused to leave their patients, and the little Russian girl with a broken back being ferried across the Volga. They were all here, the victors and the vanquished, those who came through Stalingrad on this side of life and the million souls who did not.

"The battle of Stalingrad represents one of the most significant turning points of the 20th century: the German Wehrmacht was defeated in a titanic struggle on the shores of the River Volga by a Red Army that, only a few months earlier, had appeared to be on the verge of complete defeat." So Walsh summarizes the import of the battle. To understand just why Stalingrad was so important, one must remember that in August 1942, when the battle of Stalingrad began, the war's outcome still hung in the balance. The United States had inflicted a decisive defeat on Japan at the Battle of Midway, which had taken place three months earlier, and England remained unvanquished. But Hitler ruled Europe and had driven Russia to the brink. Germany's June 1941 invasion of Russia, code-named "Barbarossa," had inflicted appalling casualties on the ineptly commanded Red Army, which rashly chose to stand and fight the lightning-swift Wehrmacht, with the result that Russian troops were encircled and annihilated time and again. In just six months, by the end of 1941, the invasion -- the largest military operation of all time -- had resulted in 6 million Russian soldiers being killed or wounded, with 3 million captured.

To be sure, the German army's failure to defeat Russia in 1941 was a setback of huge proportions. Russia had time on its side, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of troops and tanks, whereas the almost million casualties the Wehrmacht itself had suffered could not be quickly replaced. Still, in summer 1942 Germany was poised to strike the death-blow. The German command was confident that the Wehrmacht's speed, led by its armored Panzer divisions and dominant Luftwaffe, and superior tactics would again allow it to surround and destroy the Red Army in a series of "Kesselschlachts," or "cauldron battles of annihilation."

Instead, it was the cream of the German army that was destroyed in a Kesselschlacht of its own making. The tide turned against Hitler, never to flow back: after Stalingrad, everything the Third Reich did was essentially delaying the inevitable.

Its historic significance alone gives Stalingrad extraordinary resonance. But what makes it a truly tragic epic are two additional factors: Hitler's obsessive, increasingly maniacal role, which moves the whole drama into the realm of black absurdity, and the sheer, endless, almost ungraspable horror of the battle itself, in which thousands of men died to gain, literally, 10 or 15 yards of smashed concrete. Together, these elements create a monster that seems to have grown out of the deepest, darkest places of the 20th century soul -- as if a serial killer had become god.

Antony Beevor's extraordinary "Stalingrad," now available in paperback, does not indulge in such metaphors. It doesn't need to. His epic builds slowly and overwhelmingly, allowing the tragic arc of the entire tale to reveal itself -- from the diplomatic deceptions in Berlin as "Barbarossa" was launched on a beautiful June day to the grim fate, a year and a half later, of the 90,000 starving German prisoners marched off through the snow to almost certain death. Deeply researched using German and Russian archives, it is at once comprehensive and utterly compelling. Beevor writes a straight, unornamented prose that is far more powerful than any rhetoric could be: This is a story that needs only to be excavated, not created. Yet you can feel his compassion. No better Virgil could be imagined for this guided tour of hell.

The battle of Stalingrad lasted more than six months, from the August aerial assault that began to turn the city on the Volga into rubble (and provided the Russian troops with ready-made defensive positions, as well as severely limiting the use of German armor) to Nazi Field Marshal Paulus' surrender on Feb. 2. It was the longest sustained battle of the war, and the bloodiest. And Beevor's book, like all great histories focusing on concentrated periods of time, gives you the sense of the fatality of each day, each attack.

Especially telling are the thousands of anecdotes and facts that he weaves into his vast tale, like the monsters peering out in a Bosch painting. Some examples:

In his account of a German doctor who was flown into the Kessel (the doomed, encircled German position in and around Stalingrad) to figure out why German troops had begun to suddenly die without diagnosable illnesses (it turned out they were starving to death), Beevor notes, "Such was the shortage of wood in this treeless waste that fork or crossroads along the snowbound route was marked by the leg from a slaughtered horse stuck upright in a mound of snow. The relevant tactical sign and directional arrow were attached to the top of this gruesome signpost."

As the German troops advanced into Russia, they would sometimes notice a dog running toward their tanks with an odd-looking stick attached to its body. The Russians had strapped high explosives to the dogs and trained them with food to run under tanks; the stick would cause the explosives to detonate.

As the battle began to turn against the Germans, the Soviet radio broadcast this amplified propaganda message: "Every seven seconds a German soldier dies in Russia." If rounded up to nine a minute, that figure works out to 540 an hour, 12,960 a day, 90,720 a week, 388,800 a month. It is not that inaccurate. By comparison, it should be noted that in all of World War II -- Pearl Harbor to Okinawa, the Battle of the Bulge to D-day, Anzio to Guadalcanal -- the United States lost 300,000 men.

The Germans fired 25 million rounds of ammunition in September alone.

Over 10,000 civilians, including 994 children, were found after the battle to have survived in the twisted rubble of the city. Of those children, only nine were reunited with their parents. An American aid worker described them: "'Most of the children,' she wrote, 'had been living in the ground for four or five winter months. They were swollen with hunger. They cringed in corners, afraid to speak, or even look people in the face.'"

Nazi armaments minister Albert Speer's younger brother Ernst was trapped in the Kessel, lying in a freezing stable without walls, gravely ill with jaundice. Speer's desperate mother called Speer and, sobbing, begged him to use his influence to get him out. But the guilt-wracked Speer, who had placated Ernst by promising he would get him transferred to France when the campaign was over, could do nothing: Hitler had ordered senior officers not to use influence on behalf of relatives. "Now the last letter from Ernst in Stalingrad said that he could not stand watching his fellow patients die in the field hospital," writes Beevor. "He had rejoined his comrades in the front lines, despite his grotesquely swollen limbs and pathetic weakness." When another officer entered the Kessel in January, no trace of Ernst or any of his unit could be found: His last communication was his letter, which the anguished Speer described as "desperate about life, angry about death, and bitter about me, his brother."

In the brutal Nov. 12 battle to keep the Germans from breaking through to the Volga, "only one man survived from the marine infantry guarding the regimental command post. His right hand was smashed and he could no longer fire. He went down into the bunker, and on hearing that there were no reserves left, filled his cap with grenades. 'I can throw these with my left hand,' he explained. Close by, a platoon from another regiment fought until only four were left alive and their ammunition ran out. A wounded man was sent back with the message: 'Begin shelling our position. In front of us is a large group of fascists. Farewell comrades, we did not retreat.'"

During the battle an incredible 13,500 Russian troops, caught in the act of retreating, deserting or surrendering, were executed, either summarily or after a trial, by their own officers or by the NKVD (the notorious Communist security police), who were posted yards behind the front lines. "Red Army soldiers were also deemed guilty if they failed to shoot immediately at any comrades seen trying to desert or to surrender to the enemy. On one occasion in late September, when a group of Soviet soldiers surrendered, German tanks advanced rapidly to protect them from fire directed at them from their own lines." This information was long suppressed by the Soviet Union and only became public with the opening of state archives a few years ago.

Stephen Walsh's book, unlike Beevor's, doesn't aspire to tell the whole story of Stalingrad. It's a war scholar's book, more technical and analytical, offering a detailed account of the strategy and tactics of the battle, as well as of Operation Barbarossa as a whole. Walsh is a senior lecturer in war studies at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhust, England, and he tells his military-history story dispassionately, as befits a professional student of war whose job requires him to be as cool as a chess player. It's a terse, at times dry book that examines the battle the way a chief of staff would, as if all those human beings hacking each other to death with shovels to gain a few yards of a rubble-strewn factory floor -- the Germans called the fighting "the war of the rats" -- were counters on a board game. This is, in fact, an indispensable perspective, and it perfectly complements Beevor's ground-level view. (A shortcoming of Walsh's volume, however, is its inadequate maps.)

For example, Walsh makes it clear that two factors allowed the Red Army to prevail: its artillery massed on the east bank of the Volga, which prevented the Germans from massing large attack groups, and the fact that it was able at great human cost to keep its supply lifeline of small boats and ferries open to the east side of the river, allowing fresh troops to be fed into the "meat grinder." (In fact, both Walsh and Beevor point out that at a certain point, the 62nd Red Army, which held its desperately contested piece of Stalingrad during the entire battle and must be considered one of the most heroic forces in the history of warfare, was essentially used as bait to keep the Germans in the trap. As the appallingly high Russian casualties mounted, the Soviet high command simply sent in enough reinforcements to keep the Germans at bay.)

Walsh's book also has superb photographs, accompanied by captions whose neutral tone can be disquieting. One reads: "Soviet soldiers defending a building during fierce fighting in Stalingrad. Once again, there is an emphasis upon occupying the upper floors. The soldier in the far right corner has just been hit." The photograph shows four soldiers firing their burp guns out the windows of a bullet-pocked room, strikingly dappled by light. It takes a moment to realize that the figure in the far corner is twisted at an odd, fake-looking angle, his head falling back on the sill as his right hand still holds the weapon. He is as insignificant and ignored as the tiny figure of Icarus hitting the water in Breughel's famous painting.

Walsh is even more detailed than Beevor in describing the street-fighting tactics adopted by the Russians who had graduated from what they ironically dubbed the "Stalingrad Academy of Street Fighting." General Chuikov, the iron-hard general in command of the 62nd Army, realized that if this battle was going to be won, it would be won house by house and factory by factory, with soldiers on the spot making the decisions. He therefore created a basic fighting unit called a "shock group," composed of 50 to 80 men and divided into three sections: the storm group, the reinforcement group and the reserve group. The storm group was made up of eight to ten soldiers, heavily armed with machine guns, grenades, daggers and shovels (shovels were used as axes in hand-to-hand situations). Its task was to infiltrate an enemy position, whether a building or trench, and kill the enemy. Having done so, they would signal by rocket for the reinforcement group. The reserve group would back up the other two units. The entire attack, from clearing to securing to reinforcing, was to take only three minutes. "Surprise and speed were heavily influenced by Chuikov's hand-grenade rule, which laid down that the distance to be covered should be no greater than 27m (30 yards), the distance of a grenade throw."

As both authors point out, Chuikov insisted that the Russian troops dig in only a few yards away from the Germans. This brilliant, if horrific, tactic neutralized the Germans' greatest advantage, their mastery in the air, and also made it even harder for German tanks to maneuver. The Russians also excelled in fighting at night, which demoralized the Germans. As the Russian airforce began to become a factor against the stretched-thin Luftwaffe, it consistently attacked the German positions at night, preventing soldiers from sleeping. Then they would have to pull themselves out of their freezing bunkers to another day of gruesome combat on the unrecognizable streets or within the huge, wrecked factories, where enemy troops would fire through the ceilings and walls at each other, stumbling across gray and green corpses, barbed wire, shattered pipes and burned-out machines.

If Walsh's clinical tone is both chilling and oddly appropriate (confronted with such horror, expressive language adds nothing), it can also be unintentionally funny -- as with his ghoulish use of the word "attentions." Apparently, in British military parlance, it is customary to use a word usually associated with buttered scones and tea to describe firing mortars and 88mm shells at the enemy, as in: "In the face of Stalin's determination to destroy 6th Army, a weakened 6th Army and 57th Panzer Corps would not have survived the attentions of 2nd Guards Army."

Walsh is strongest at analyzing the purely military aspects of the battle, both strategically and tactically. He explains the fatal weakness in the central German military doctrine, "Vernichtungschlacht" or "strategic military victory in one campaign," that gave Hitler and his generals the confidence to launch the largest military operation of all time, the 1941 invasion of Russia. The Germans were rashly convinced that they could defeat Russia in one five-month campaign ending in the fall, thus avoiding the dreadful Russian winter that doomed Napoleon. Walsh's overriding point is that German strategy in Russia from the beginning was plagued by a fatal disconnect between ends and means. They consistently tried to do more than their forces would allow them to, and as a result they lost everything.

Thus, the hideous fate of Germany's 6th Army in Stalingrad was sealed because its vast defensive perimeter was inadequately defended -- the inadequacy due in large part to the fact that Hitler, who as a general could be an inspired tactician but had no grasp of logistics and had serious strategic shortcomings, had sent one of his eastern army groups on an unrealistic expedition into the Caucasus in search of its far-flung oil fields. Hitler, who increasingly saw the battle as a contest of wills and refused to recognize that the inch-by-inch street fighting in Stalingrad played into the enemy's strengths and away from his, refused to allow the 6th Army to withdraw even after a massive Russian attack sliced through both sides of the perimeter and trapped it. In one of the great military blunders in history -- which, as both Beevor and Walsh point out, Hitler's sycophantic generals failed to seriously contest -- Hitler refused to allow the 6th Army to break out.

Starving, frostbitten, plagued by lice and rodents (Beevor recounts how one soldier woke up to find that mice had eaten two of his frostbitten toes), afflicted with typhus, jaundice and dysentery, with almost no ammunition, reduced to three ounces of bread a day, too weak to dig trenches when under fire, engaged day after day and night after night in all-out combat, it's incredible that the abandoned, hopeless German troops were able to resist the final Russian assaults as fiercely as they did. Even at the end, many of them still believed that Hitler would save them. After their surrender, they were marched away into captivity (those who couldn't walk were either shot on the spot or abandoned to die), newsreels capturing the endless lines, 95,000 men walking through the endless snow to the gulags. Ninety-five percent of the German enlisted men taken prisoner after Stalingrad died. Of the original 330,000 men in the 6th Army, about 5,000 survived the war. Other German armies also suffered appalling casualties, but the Russian losses were far higher: A million Red Army troops may have perished at Stalingrad.

If Beevor makes the tale of Stalingrad a harrowing epic of Shakespearean sweep and Walsh coolly and accurately analyzes why the battle was won and lost, Annaud's "Enemy at the Gates" turns it into "Stalingradland," a Disneyland theme park where, after a bang-up, Pirates of the Caribbean style opening, you roll comfortably along on a cozy, quiet, heated monorail, viewing at your leisure the not-very-compelling duel between a Russian sniper (based on a true character named Zaitsev) and a German sniper who, according to what Beevor characterizes as highly dubious after-the-fact Russian accounts, was sent in to kill him. Despite its superb sets of pulverized streets and factories, the film's atmosphere is about as tense and claustrophobic as a John Wayne gunfight in one of those clean-bandanna-and-spotless-hat westerns: You know the other guy's shooting blanks. We're supposed to be in the belly of the beast, not just the worst place in the world but maybe the worst place in the history of the world, and for long stretches of time you don't see anybody's breath or hear more than an occasional distant "bang."

Annaud does pull off one amazing sequence that takes you into the real Stalingrad, the stunning opening scene of terrified Russian troops crossing the Volga into the exploding inferno of the city. Reminiscent of the beach landing in "Saving Private Ryan," it's a tour de force that features, among other things, what must be the most terrifying ground's-eye-view depiction of strafing ever filmed. This scene raises the bar: It tells us that this movie is going to be intense and real, that it's going to have appropriate scale, that it's going to be faithful in some way to its subject. But after this brush with verisimilitude, the film quickly devolves into close-ups of Jude Law, Rachel Weisz and Ed Harris.

The potent new technology used in films like "Saving Private Ryan" and "Enemy at the Gates" is a double-edged sword for directors. It allows far more visceral depictions of war than ever before -- but if the film sinks back into sentimentality or falseness, the unreality and hypocrisy are even worse than in the old days. In the heyday of sentimental flag-wavers where the second lead died cosmetically, where machine guns didn't blow pieces of people's small intestines out their backs and the good guys always won, war didn't look or feel like war. These were basically stage plays, completely artificial: If their plots were equally artificial, as they frequently were, at least they felt all of a piece. But in the post-"Apocalypse Now," post-"Private Ryan" era, to give the audience a taste of war's hellish reality -- enormous subwoofers booming, computer-generated graphics blasting, mind-blowing editing and special effects jammed like a shot of speed into the audience's jugular -- and then suddenly modulate into the stilted universe of "For Whom We Serve" or whatever those treacly '40s war films were called, is a travesty. "Enemy at the Gates" is a textbook case of hyperviolence that is merely decorative. It sends the message that war is a blurred, meaningless horror except when it isn't, which is 99 percent of the time. This E-Z-Off naturalism is even worse than the old sentimental jingoism, because it doesn't have any formal excuse. It reduces carnage to a cheap thrill.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with focusing on a tiny piece of a huge battle. But there are ways of doing that that honor the larger story, like "The Red Badge of Courage." There are also ways of telling epic tales in a series of vignettes, as "The Longest Day" does. (Hokey as its patriotic music is, instantaneous as are its deaths, that blockbuster warhorse is still in places a pretty powerful film.) But "Enemy at the Gates" is completely about the made-for-Euro-Hollywood sniper duel: The Stalingrad ambience is just a bonus. It doesn't even pretend to honor the epochal battle that is its setting.

"Honor" may seem like an inappropriate word to apply to the attitude of a filmmaker toward his subject. But it is precisely that attitude, which cannot be quantified but which can be felt in every frame, that distinguishes the great war movies from those that are mere entertainments. They can be pro- or anti-war, patriotic or nihilistic, epics or miniatures; they can exalt the courage of a Prince Henry or wallow in the all-too-human cowardice of Falstaff. As long as they honor their subject, the audience will feel it. "Enemy at the Gates" could have succeeded on its own terms if it succeeded in making us care about the three characters it plucked out of the millions of souls caught in the cauldron: that too would have been an act of homage. But it fails atrociously. It takes one of the great and dreadful stories of modern history and sacrifices its epic scale for local melodrama. That isn't just bad, it's offensive.

But it will take more than a movie to kill the memory of Stalingrad. The obliterated city's ghosts live on, reminders of a horror beyond words that really happened. In our time. In a city of the damned.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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