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Deeper than hell; what canst thou know?
on 13 November 2005
That was the question Job once asked himself in the Bible. If Job had been alive and on the eastern front in World War II he may have found the answer to his question - Stalingrad. The hellish battle of Stalingrad, as seen through the eyes of a small band of German soldiers, is the subject of director Joseph Vilsmaier's visually stunning and brutal film Stalingrad.
Stalingrad begins on the Italian coast where a German platoon enjoys leave after the Battle of El Alamein in North Africa. Recovering from wounds and enjoying wine and German women while sitting along a bright, sunny, beach the men are called to order. A new opportunity for glory awaits them in Russia. Next stop Stalingrad. We see the platoon boarding a train and entering a tunnel in Italy and exiting a tunnel into Russia. We see the platoon's new officer Lt. Witzland writing home to his wife. A stranger to battle, Witzland writes of the glories to come and of his hopes that he will prove himself to the battle-hardened men under his command. As we shall see, Witzland does indeed prove himself but not in the manner he could ever have predicted.
Witzland's baptism starts immediately upon disembarkation on the outskirts of Stalingrad. Horrified at the mistreatment of some Red Army prisoners he protests only to find himself knocked into the mud and sneered at by the powers that be. Word quickly spreads that this callow youth is a "friend of the Russians" and only his father's military background saves him.
The platoon is ordered to take a factory and the horror begins. Amidst flame throwers, horrible deaths and raw sewage all thoughts of romantic heroism evaporate and Witzland soon learns that survival is the one and only rational, if hopeless, goal one should take into war. Witzland's ultimate humanity never deserts him and, contrary to orders, tries to arrange a brief truce so that the Russians and Germans can gather their wounded. The truce is horribly boggled and the platoon's descent into hell continues in lock step with Stalingrad's descent into a frozen Russian winter. The platoon is arrested for trying to jump the line to get one of their men some medication and they find themselves doing duty as human mine sweepers.
The German army is soon encircled by a Red Army break out and despite the devastation they know is forthcoming the fanatics among them commit even greater horrors. As the men wait for a break through that never comes the excesses of the fanatics continues. The appearance of the men devolves along with the situation. The end, the apocalypse that awaits the trapped Germany army is inevitable; only 6,000 men out of more than 250,000 survived the battle or their imprisonment in the USSR. Witzland's final attempt to reclaim his humanity is a stunning one.
The above outline does not do justice to the power of Stalingrad. Although seen through a German lens that captures no small amount of the humanity of the common German foot soldier, it does not flinch from showing the horrors unleashed in the name of the German people, the Volk, and overseen by a series of true-believers for whom no act of violence is too sadistic or too meaningless. Portraying the differences between the typical German foot soldier and the S.S. for example is not new. However, Vilsmaier handles the distinction in an effective and (seemingly) realistic way that neither excuses the behavior nor tries to limit attribution of horrific acts to a small group of less than human soldiers. Brutality is omnipresent but that brutality renders the flashes of humanity evidenced by the platoon all the more stunning.
Stalingrad is a haunting film and one that will linger long after the final credits run.