Stalingrad is a German war film directed by Joseph Vilsmaier. Starring Thomas Kretschmann as Lt. Hans von Witzland, the movie follows a platoon of World War II Wehrmacht soldiers from Italy in the summer of 1942 as they are transferred to the German Sixth Army, which finds itself surrounded and besieged by the Red Army during the fateful Battle of Stalingrad during the winter of 1942–1943.
The Battle of Stalingrad (23 August 1942–2 February 1943) was one of the largest (nearly 2.2 million personnel involved) and bloodiest battles ever fought. After 13 weeks of street-to-street combat in the fall of 1942, the Germans had taken most of the city—reduced to rubble from aerial bombardment and shelling—but they had neglected to shore up their weak flanks to the north and south. On 19 November 1942 the Russians launched Operation Uranus, a surprise massive counterattack on those flanks that quickly surrounded and ultimately destroyed the German Sixth Army in a giant pincer movement. Total Axis casualties (Germans, Romanians, Italians, and Hungarians) are believed to have been more than 250,000 dead, 450,000 wounded, and 91,000 captured—a devastating defeat that essentially sealed the doom of Hitler’s Third Reich. Over the ensuing decades a number of documentary and fiction films, German and Russian, have been made about this decisive WWII battle, but the best of them remains Joseph Vilsmaier’s Stalingrad. The film originates with Christoph Fromm, a young German screenwriter who wrote a screenplay (c.1990) based on extensive research, including numerous interviews, that places fictive characters in the 336th Pioneer Battalion, 336th Infantry Division, a real unit that fought at Stalingrad. Producers Günter Rohrbach and Hanno Huth acquired Fromm’s script and hired director Joseph Vilsmaier to turn it into a movie for Bavaria Film. Vilsmaier and co-writers Jürgen Büscher and Johannes Heide retained Fromm’s characters and basic narrative structure, but extensively reworked the material, making it less a documentary and more of “a movie with feelings,” as Vilsmaier later put it—so much so that Fromm took his name off the project and later published his version as a novel (Stalingrad—Die Einsamkeit vor dem Sterben [Stalingrad—The Loneliness Before Dying]).
In order to show the declining health and weight loss of its main protagonists, Stalingrad was shot in sequence between October 1991 and April 1992. The opening moments were filmed on location in Cervo, Liguria, Italy, while the Stalingrad scenes were shot in Prague and in Kurivody, Ceská Lípa District of Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), and in Kajaani and Kemijärvi, Finland. Additional interiors were shot on sets at Bavaria Studios, Geiselgasteig, Germany. There was no filming at Stalingrad itself (now Volgograd); destroyed during the Nazi siege, the city was completely rebuilt after the war so there were no period buildings. Vilsmaier’s production team made every effort to ensure authenticity; they found 9,000 original World War II uniforms, period weapons, and a number of World War II–era Soviet tanks that were still operational. In addition to the 40 actors with speaking roles, the movie employed a production team of 180 technicians, 12,000 extras (mostly Czechs and Germans), and 100 stunt persons. Vilsmaier also combed a veterans’ hospital near Prague for extras missing arms and legs. The world’s largest snowmaking machine was used during the filming of the winter scenes, some of which were shot in the dead of winter with temperatures as low as −22° F (−30° C). The production budget was an estimated 20 million Deutschemarks ($13.2 million).
In August 1942, after the First Battle of El Alamein (1–27 July 1942) ends in a stalemate, German soldiers who fought with Rommel’s Afrika Korps enjoy leave in Cervo, Liguria, Italy. At an assembly of the battalion, some of the men are awarded the Allgemeines Sturmabzeichen [General Assault Badge], including Unteroffizier [Sgt.] Manfred “Rollo” Rohleder (Jochen Nickel) and Obergefreiter [Senior Lance-corporal] Fritz Reiser (Dominique Horwitz). Both men meet Lieutenant Hans von Witzland (Thomas Kretschmann), a platoon commander on his first leadership posting, and the squadron travels by train to participate in the Battle of Stalingrad. Witzland’s unit links up with a group led by Hauptmann [Captain] Hermann Musk (Karel Heřmánek), who takes them on an attack of a factory building, resulting in a large number of deaths and injuries. During a ceasefire, the unit retrieves their injured soldiers and manages to take a prisoner: Kolya (Pavel Mang), a young Russian boy. However, Russian forces swarm the next day, and the boy escapes. Without a working radio, von Witzland, Reiser, Rollo, Emigholtz (Heinz Emigholz), “GeGe” Müller (Sebastian Rudolph), and Wölk (Zdenek Vencl) take to the sewers to find their way back to the German front. Witzland is soon on his own, having lost his unit underground, but is able to capture a Russian soldier named Irina (Dana Vávrová), who lures him into a sense of safety by offering to help him, but betrays him by pushing him into the water before running off. Witzland is saved by his men, but Emigholtz is severely wounded when he unwittingly detonates a booby trap. His comrades take him to a crowded aid station full of severely wounded soldiers screaming in agony, and Reiser orders an aid worker to help his friend, pointing a gun at the orderly. Emigholtz dies, despite their efforts. Hauptmann Haller (Dieter Okras) captures the men and sets them up in a penal unit forced to disarm landmines. By late November 1942, a brutally cold winter season has arrived, and the Soviet forces have outflanked the Germans. Hauptmann Musk sends the penal unit to the frontline, and Witzland’s squadron has some initial success defending their position, but Wölk dies in the process. Witzland, GeGe, and Reiser then decide to desert. They steal medical tags from corpses to feign being wounded and head towards Pitomnik Airfield, in the center of the “cauldron” (pocket), in hopes of catching a medical evacuation plane out of Stalingrad. However, they arrive too late and watch as the final transport heads out without them and the airfield is riddled with bullets from the Russian forces. They return to their unit in a shelter and see that Musk is afflicted by a bad case of trench foot. When a German plane arrives with supplies, the unit hurries out to secure provisions. Haller accosts them at gunpoint and is taken down, but he kills GeGe as he hits the ground. Making a desperate play for his life, Haller tells the men that he has a stash of supplies hidden at a local house, but Otto executes him. The men find the house in question full of provisions, but they also find Irina bound to Haller’s bed as his sex slave. Von Witzland frees Irina, and she tells the men that she collaborated with the Germans. The squad help themselves to food and drink, while a feverish and dying Musk tries to convince them to fight on. Otto commits suicide instead. Once Musk dies, Rollo brings his body outside and sees the remaining members of the German Sixth Army conceding to the Russian forces. Irina, Witzland, and Reiser make their way through the snow to escape, but shots from the Soviets kill Irina and mortally wound Witzland. The Germans manage to get away. Witzland eventually succumbs to his wounds and perishes in Reiser’s arms. Reiser holds his dead commander, thinking about North Africa as he eventually freezes to death.
Stalingrad premiered in Munich, Germany on 21 January 1993 but was not released in the United States until 24 May 1995, after it had already gone to video. Box office numbers are unknown, but anecdotal information suggests that the movie was not profitable—perhaps not surprising, insofar as Stalingrad is one of the bleakest movies ever made. It did, however, receive mostly positive reviews. Stephen Holden notes that Stalingrad “has some of the most virtuosic battle scenes to be found in a modern war film” but also observes that the movie “is so determined to show the horrors of war that [it] doesn’t devote quite enough time to its major characters” (Holden, 1995, p. C19). Peter Stack called the film “grimly beautiful” and found the soldiers depicted as “anything but reverent toward their leaders … Stalingrad is rough yet fascinating viewing. Delving into the brutal realities of war with an almost docudrama style, it renders a bitter, almost choking sense of the futility of war through the destruction not only of bodies, but of the human spirit” (Stack, 1995).
Reel History Versus Real History
In its display of uniforms, weapons, and tanks and its visceral rendering of combat in urban and open settings, including severe casualties, atrocities, and the abysmal conditions faced by the trapped remnants of the Sixth Army, Stalingrad achieves a high degree of historical accuracy. Focused at the squad level, the film is not able to convey or even suggest the enormous scope and complexity of the Battle of Stalingrad (a task better left to documentaries).