Stalingrad (1993) The German Movie That is One of the Best War Movies Ever

Joseph Vilsmaier’s Stalingrad is one of the most powerful war movies I have ever seen. It bears testimony to Germany’s outstanding filmmaking capacities. It is also one of the rare that I have watched at least three times and every time I discovered something new. That’s why it is difficult to write a decent review and not one that is so long that you jump to the next post without even finishing the introduction.

Stalingrad focuses closely on five characters, four of which have been together since they fought at El Alamein.  We first see them on leave in Italy  from where they board a train to the Eastern Front. They don’t really have a clue where they are going or what for. They know the Führer says it is crucial and they have to trust him on that but first voices can be heard that doubt the decision-making of their command. During their train trip they meet their new Lieutenant, Witzlan (Thomas Kretschmann), for the first time. He isn’t battle hardened like the others are, in fact he has never fought at all and there is immediately a lot of friction.

When they get off the train in Stalingrad they face total chaos. There are heavily wounded soldiers everywhere, fighting is extremely heavy and they are in the midst of it all right away. The German officers in Stalingrad are mostly cruel Nazis, the treatment of Russian prisoners is harrowing. Witzlan is, as the privates discover now, a very humane person. He will not tolerate abuse and cruelty and comes into conflict with superiors on that subject. He may be inexperienced but he has a great character and his decision making isn’t all that bad, as we soon see.  As a matter of fact his subordinates learn to respect him a lot. One of the majors however is one of the most obnoxious characters of war movie history, a real jerk.

Stalingrad consists more or less of seven very distinct parts, the first one is the leave in Italy, followed by a heavy infantry combat one, then a sequence in which they are doing forced labour, next is the so-called “tank episode”, then they escape, meet again later with a part of their original group and finally try again to escape, out of Russia and back to Germany.

Because Stalingrad focuses practically only on five people it is a very intimate and emotional movie You have the feeling to know these people, you care for them, they are really humans with all their strengths and flaws. They are no heroes, they are normal people caught in what was one of the biggest tragedies of WWII, one of the battles that cost the most lives.

And there is the setting and seasonal implications. Russia in winter is one of the coldest places on earth. This really is a winter movie. Snow, ice, freezing and the total hopelessness of the people involved makes it unforgettable. Most of those who survived the battles froze to death later.

I have often wondered, if I had to choose, which climate I would choose. Fighting in the desert, in the jungle or in the icy cold planes of Russia? All three settings bear their own horrors as did the war soaked trenches of France and Belgium. My father fought in the desert, where you fight exhaustion, thirst, Fata Morgana and hallucinations from the heat and have to endure long walks through arid barren country where you can’t hide and are an easy target.

From my own personal point of view, I tink that icy Russia would be the worst. Stalingrad is for me the worst battle that ever took place. The battle and its aftermath are horrible.

I haven’t seen the Finnish movie Talvisota aka The Winter War yet, this might be similar, also a winter movie, but apart from that I think the extreme that is depicted in Stalingrad is unique. No other war movie achieves to convey such a powerful anti-war statement.

It think it safe to say that it is not only one of my Top 10 but it is also generally acknowledged as one of the best ever.  It manages to combine very intimate portraits of five soldiers, intense infantry combat, the depiction of a grueling climate and one of the biggest miscalculations of Hitler. 5/5 is an absolute understatement.

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19 thoughts on “Stalingrad (1993) The German Movie That is One of the Best War Movies Ever

  1. […] Stalingrad (1993): WWII, grim infantry combat. German POV. One of the best war movies  ever, one of my Top 10 as well. The setting, the character portraits, the acting, the combat, the snow, the cold, the despair. A fabulous movie that gives an insight in one of the worst chapters of WWII. Another marvellous cast. Thomas Kretschmann (King Kong, Resident Evil, The Downfall, The Young Victoria) is in it. He is one of those German actors that are known far beyond Germany and Europe. (see my post on Stalingrad) […]

  2. Anonymous says:

    Great review as always.
    I’d love to watch this one. Movies that focus on several people always intrigued me, especially when the actors can play really good.

    I just realized, I haven’t asked you why you like war movies so much?

    • Thanks, you are very kind. I had to amend your comment a little bit, sorry,… It is worth watching, it definitely is. I thought I said why I liked them in my “About” page. Maybe I wasn’t explicit. I might answer the question in a future post.

  3. warmoviebuff says:

    I do not mind the longer reviews, especially when they are passionate. Your passion makes me want to watch this movie long before I get to it on the 100 Greatest list. It is #23 and it sounds like it is not ranked high enough.
    Sounds like a good companion to “Enemy at the Gates”. Although quite different.
    As to where I would prefer to fight – I would go with the desert. I like heat better than cold. My least favorite would be the jungle. You get heat and wet and most importantly – critters. I do not like things crawling on me and biting me. I would rather sleep in snow or sand than mud.

    • I simply adore this movie.
      There are visual parallels in those two movies, at least in the initial combat scenes inside of the town. But then all remsemblance stops.
      When I read Letters home from Vietnam years and years ago, I thought that it would have been one of the worst settings to be in combat. The humidity is awful and I can see why many soldiers went bonkers. The problem with the desert – as I know from my own trip to Northern Africa, and from my father – is the temperature drop at night. It can get very cold.
      Position 23 seems a bit unfair, I guess Das Boot is more advanced. It is almost equally good.

  4. warmoviebuff says:

    Soldiers in Vietnam were usually stationed in a camp surrounded by barbed wire. They lived in barracks with bunkers available in case of attack. Contact with the enemy was usually through search and destroy missions where they would be helicoptered to an area of the jungle from which they would “hump” to the area where they hoped to force the enemy into fighting. Afterwards, they were lifted back to camp by helicopter. Books which are collections of letters naturally emphasize the combat missions over the more mundane times in camp. “Platoon” is fairly accurate in depicting the amount of time spent in relative comfort. Contrast those scenes with scenes in “The Pacific”. I must say that Marines in the Pacific in WWII (when they were not involved in an island invasion) sometimes had weeks where they were waiting for the next operation and the comfort level (and the safety level) may have been better than in Vietnam. However, the times when you were on an enemy held island were much worse than in Vietnam.

    • Makes sense (what you say about the choice of letters) . I was wondering if you knew movies or related books etc. about the French in Indochina. I saw Dien Bien Phu a while back, it is a very good movie but probably not widely known.

      • warmoviebuff says:

        I think “The Quiet American” is set in that time period – post Dien Bien Phu. (I know of no Ameriacn movie set in the war itself.) Very interesting movie. I also recall a book by Bernard Fall called “Street Without Joy” which is the gold standard on the French in Vietnam. He also wrote a book about Dien Bien Phu.

      • I have seen The Quiet American. A fantastic movie, the score is wonderful… One oft the best movie scores I have heard … Thanks for the book titles. I will have to ask my father about his grandfather. He was posted in Indochina. Some of the stories were quite funny… (not war related).

  5. warmoviebuff says:

    A book similar to “A Rumor of War” is “Platoon Leader” which was made into a bad war movie that did not do justice to the book.

  6. […] much like Stalingrad, Joyeux Noël focuses on very few people. At the heart of the movie are the soldiers in the German, […]

  7. oldboy says:

    hi.
    thnk you,but could u suggest sm documents or good movies about hitler and his private life please

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