"Stalingrad": A national myth for Putin's Russia

Fedor Bondarchuk on his eye-popping WWII epic, which helps explain the psychology behind the Ukraine crisis

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 5, 2014 12:00AM (EST)

To understand Russia’s recent invasion of Crimea, or the larger conflict between Russia and the West over the status of Ukraine, it’s not enough to talk about a continuation of Cold War politics or the autocratic regime of Vladimir Putin. Those are factors, of course, but we also have to try to understand the Russian mind-set, the essential Russian ideology of nationhood. You could go read the collected works of Tolstoy, Gogol, Turgenev, Solzhenitsyn and Nabokov and maybe get somewhere, over a period of years. If you don’t have time for that, I suggest Fedor Bondarchuk’s “Stalingrad,” an eye-popping and extremely strange pop spectacle set during the most famous battle of World War II.

Shot in 3-D and then transferred to the IMAX format (which is absolutely the way to see it), “Stalingrad” is one of the biggest hits made in Russia since the end of the Soviet era and was intentionally made, as Bondarchuk essentially told me, to be a unifying myth for Putin’s Russia. Viewed as cinema, it’s an unstable and almost surrealist combination of Soviet-style war propaganda film, Zack Snyder-style action flick and sentimental fairy tale. Although it was shot digitally and color-corrected to the exaggerated hues of a video game, “Stalingrad” was made on an old-school physical set, a realistic re-creation of a central plaza overlooking the Volga River where the Red Army made a successful last stand, breaking the power of Hitler’s Wehrmacht and turning the tide of the war. Most of the action concerns a classic “band of brothers” group, an iconic assortment of Soviet soldiers and sailors holed up in a house between the Germans and the river, whose main concern is not Stalin or the motherland but saving the life of a simple, waiflike girl who’s been hiding in a bedroom loaded with stereotypical Russian knickknacks, with whom they’ve all fallen in love. Yes, really.

I suppose to Americans who’ve never seen movies of the Soviet period, “Stalingrad” will just seem bizarre or laughable. Very likely it is bizarre, but one might well ask how American-made military mythology, from “Top Gun” to “Lone Survivor,” would look to Russian viewers. Propaganda is always more obvious when it’s directed at someone else; directed at you it’s meant to feel normal and right, as natural as oxygen. I met Bondarchuk a few days before Russian troops took virtual possession of Crimea, a province in southeastern Ukraine, so we didn’t talk about that. I had the distinct sense, however, that our conversation was actually about the mutual incomprehension of this tense moment in Russo-American relations.

I didn’t use the word “propaganda” in my conversation with Bondarchuk, but as you will see, when I suggested that his film was more like myth than history, he leaped on that idea gratefully. It’s important to understand that Bondarchuk is a major Russian cultural celebrity – an actor, producer and TV host, as well as a director – who is closely allied with Putin’s political movement while maintaining some semblance of independence. (He has made mildly critical remarks at times, about the lack of genuine opposition parties, for instance.) Furthermore, he comes from a family with a long history of precisely this kind of accommodation to power. As fans of Russian cinema will already know, his father was Sergei Bondarchuk, an actor and director who was one of the most important cultural figures of the Soviet era. The senior Bondarchuk walked a fine line for years, using his international prestige to retain some artistic freedom while remaining in the Kremlin’s good graces. His Oscar-winning, seven-hour mid-‘60s adaptation of “War and Peace” (in which he also played Pierre) remains by some accounts the most expensive film of all time, costing something like $800 million in today’s dollars. (Fedor’s mother, Irina Skobtseva, was a major Soviet movie star, and his older sister Natalya is also an actress and filmmaker, best known for her role in Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris.”)

Fedor Bondarchuk’s first major acting role, at age 19, came in his father’s 1986 adaptation of Pushkin’s classic play “Boris Godunov.” His second, as it happens, was a small supporting role in a film called “Stalingrad” – not this one, but a 1989 epic directed by Yuri Ozerov that was one of the last big movies made before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russians keep coming back to the battle, even at a time when very few living people can remember it, as a formative national myth, as a story of enormous sacrifice, of an act of defiance against long odds meant to protect Russian culture, Russian mores and the Russian way of life. Stalingrad was a moment of karmic payback and nation-building that enacted and then rejected a long history of foreign conquest and invasion, and transformed but did not entirely destroy a massive inferiority complex.

As Joseph Stalin, a man mentioned by name only once in “Stalingrad,” but who hovers over it like a presiding ghost, once put it: “The history of old Russia consisted, among other things, in her being ceaselessly beaten for her backwardness. She was beaten by the Mongol khans. She was beaten by the Turkish beys. She was beaten by the Swedish feudal rulers. She was beaten by the Polish-Lithuanian lords. She was beaten by the Anglo-French capitalists. She was beaten by the Japanese barons. Everyone gave her a beating for her backwardness.” I believe it’s necessary to view what’s happening today in Ukraine against not just the canvas of current world politics, but also that psychological backdrop. Allowing what many Russians perceive as a pro-Western coup to happen on their doorstep is tantamount to accepting another beating.

Fedor Bondarchuk is a dapper, elegant man in his late 40s, with a shaved head and a neatly manicured goatee. He was tired after a two-day visit to New York and kept switching back and forth between English and Russian. His producer and I did our best to follow him. I hesitated to suggest that I saw any visual relationship between his films and those of art-house god Andrei Tarkovsky, given their very different intentions and audiences, but when I finally brought it up while saying goodbye, Bondarchuk grasped my hand eagerly. “Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’ has given cinematographers and art directors so much, for generations,” he said. “For tens of years, hundreds of years.”

I know your father’s films, or at least some of them, and I was wondering about the relationship. He made big movies about Russian history, and now you’ve done the same thing. Were you thinking about his influence when you made “Stalingrad”?

First of all, there is a difference between my father's films and my films. The main and most important difference is literature. All my father's films were based on great Russian literature, on Leo Tolstoy or Mikhail Sholokhov [author of the epic “And Quiet Flows the Don,” the basis for Sergei Bondarchuk’s final film, not completed until years after his death].

My films are not based on famous books, they are original scripts. It's my way of trying to create -- maybe it's a strong word -- but all my life, I've been trying to create a new genre, after the end of the Soviet period. My first film, “9th Company” [made in 2005], it's about the Afghan campaign, about the end of the Soviet period of time. Every time, I have heard comments, aggressive comments, about "music video type of editing," or something like this. But, you know, this is my biography. It was a new era of Russian cinema, not Soviet cinema. After I graduated from the Moscow Film Institute, I was not involved in big cinema industry, because we had no industry at all at that time! We had very few cinema theaters that were still operating. But I was interested in music videos: It was a free territory of experimentation, with color correction, with a new type of editing, with new technology, with new digital instruments, etc. It's not about technology for me, it's only about trying to create a new genre.

In Russia, we have documentary and we have a classical type of Soviet filmmaking, which is sometimes rather conservative. My biography is based on those brilliant, fantastic films. But I am trying to create new territory, a new language of cinema. Sometimes it's very close to American movies, and these are the comments from the more aggressive and conservative audiences of Russia. “9th Company” looks like “Full Metal Jacket,” or “Stalingrad” is very close to the slow-motion techniques of Zack Snyder's “300,” etc., etc. But it's not about technology. On one hand, we absolutely have a positive attachment to American cinema. On the other hand, our Russian directors have no chance to experiment with the sacral theme of World War II.

You know, my father told me that when he made “War and Peace,” the type of editing he used, the length of the shots, was revolutionary for that period of time, at least to the conservative part of the professional cinema community in Russia. Sometimes I think I am repeating my father's path in cinema. Every time, I am trying to break the rules, at least as the conservative people see them. I hear the comments: It's not a war drama, it's more about advertising and entertainment. But that was my idea! That was why I used IMAX and 3-D technology. That's why I tried to break all the rules about color correction, and how we think about pictures of World War II. You know, the war or the battle of Stalingrad -- it must be black-and-white, or shades of gray. For me, 3-D and IMAX technology is only an instrument to clean the board between the audience and the screen. It's not about shooting the bullets into the back row of the theater. It's not about the explosions and the airplanes. It's only about taking away the borderline, the fence, between the screen and the audience.

You just mentioned the classical style of Soviet cinema, and one thing you’re drawing on, which Americans probably won’t recognize, is the whole tradition of Soviet war films. You have the collection of actors, with their weatherbeaten, very Russian-looking faces, the composition, the staging, the lighting, the themes of heroism, sacrifice and revenge.

That's a very good comment, because it was also my idea to have the place where we shot look absolutely classic. That was the whole idea: On this traditional, classical set, something happens that is absolutely different, and it's going to be shot in a new way. There are so many details in the technical aspect of shooting, which the audience does not see. What the audience sees is the composition of all these details into one new and amazing piece. There's no need to draw the attention of the audience to all the details, instead the idea is to create a composite which gives a new impression of the whole situation. And you are right about the actors. I'd like to draw your attention to the fact that the actors act in a very traditional, classical way, according to the traditions of Stanislavski and Chekhov, but with an extremely new technology around them.

You were born 25 years after the battle of Stalingrad. It was already something that belonged to your parents’ generation. For today’s young people in Russia, it’s something their grandparents remember, at best. Why does it continue to be so important? What is the significance of this battle that took place in 1942 to Russia in 2014?

The number of different memories, different stories and different legends about this period goes beyond any borderline, there are so many of them. It's kind of a sacred territory for Russia, which gives birth to legends, and also it is the basis for the self-understanding of the people, the self-understanding of the nation. It is a very protected space, as any sacred territory is protected. Actually, it's already impossible to divide what is legend, what is real history, what is documentary, what is thought, what is fantasy. It is sacred territory, a kind of holy grail for the self-understanding and self-definition of the Russian nation.

There are not so many events of that importance for the self-understanding of the nation, to form the nation, and unfortunately most of them are connected with war. One critic said that had there not been a Second World War, the Russians would have nothing to remember, nothing to be proud of, nothing to make movies about. Of course this is an exaggeration, that is not the full truth. Don't forget about all the great Russian and Soviet literature and poetry, or other historical events. But there's no doubt that the Second World War is sacred territory, and the background that unites the nation. Our picture is not so much about the historical period; it's more about the uniting function of this war. It gets people together, even nowadays. The memory of this unites the nation.

Well, I was thinking that your movie is not really about history. It’s a myth or even a fairy tale. It’s less about the real battle of Stalingrad than about a group of heroes who rescue a princess locked in a tower.

Of course! But it's so new that there is no example of myth in this cinematic territory. We have only documentary or black-and-white drama or classical films based on classical literature. A myth is a new genre. We have no comics or superheroes. We have no history of creating something like that, no examples to draw on. This is the attempt to create that kind of new genre.

”Stalingrad” is now playing in approximately 300 theaters across North America.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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