Stalingrad or Dogs Do Yo Want To Live Forever? – Hunde wollt ihr ewig leben (1958) The first Stalingrad

Dogs Do You Want to Live Forever? – Hunde wollt ihr ewig leben? is a German black and white movie from the 50s. Although the newer movie Stalingrad is generally seen as a remake I cannot agree with this view. Both movies focus on Stalingrad but the way they are told, the point of view is very different. While a modern movie will often appeal more to us because it’s not black and white, we know the actors and the special effects are normally superior, this first Stalingrad is an excellent movie and I would say as good as the one from 1993, if not in parts better.

The movie opens with Hitler watching a German army parade. A voice in the off which we will hear all through the movie, criticizing the decisions of Hitler and the high command, tells us that these marching soldiers will soon be dying in the Russian snow. After a while we leave the parading soldiers and the camera shows men dying in the snow. After that the story as such begins.

The movie tells of the encirclement of the 6th Army in Stalingrad from the point of view of a young, idealistic and likable first lieutenant. In 1942, just before the Russian offensive which will encircle the 6th Army, Wisse has been commandeered to an outpost, not far from Stalingrad where he is liaising with a Rumanian corps which fights along with the Germans.

When it is clear that the Russians have started the offensive, Wisse is posted in Stalingrad. The town is half-destroyed, the German soldiers are freezing as they are not equipped for the Russian winter and there is hardly any food left. In the end high command gives the order to stop feeding the wounded.

It is obvious from the beginning of the movie that Hitler miscalculated the whole campaign and that the only way the 6th Army could have been saved would have been to break out of the circle and retreat as fast as possible. The Russian army entrapped a Germany army which was lacking winter gear, ammunition and was almost starving. The generals and commanding officers pleaded with the Führer but he was adamant. Still, the German command refused to break rank and disobey Hitler to save the army.  By the time General Paulus decided to surrender, 60’000 soldiers were dead. 110’000 were left, of which only 6’000 would return to Germany after the war.

What is particularly harrowing in this dark chapter is the fact that Stalingrad had no strategic importance whatsoever. It was a purely political decision and for the same reasons Stalin decided to hold the city. What followed was probably the most infamous battle of WWII.

There are many reasons which make Dogs Do You Want to Live Forever? a great movie. In focussing on one man, first lieutenant Wisse, it exemplifies the disintegration of the whole army and illustrates the disillusionment and the realization of Hitler’s misguided megalomania. While Wisse is true to the party in the beginning, he, like all the other soldiers based in Stalingrad, becomes aware that Hitler doesn’t care what happens to them. He breaks his promises and as soon as he realizes the fight might be lost, he abandons them completely.

Wisse isn’t the only interesting character, there is the cowardly  commanding officer Linkman, the priest who speaks up and fight for justice and some secondary characters which are all well-rounded too.

While Stalingrad (1993) is a great movie, this one feels even more authentic because a lot of what we see is original footage and it’s blended in so well that we often only realize that we are back to the movie when we can make out one of the actors. I have rarely seen this type of blending done so seamlessly and well. The effect is not only realistic but chilling.

What was better in this one than in the new movie was the way the street fighting and the combat in the city was shown. That must have been so chaotic and both sides were battle weary and would have liked to stop fighting.

Stalingrad – Dogs Do You Want to Live Forever? is one of the top war movies, one nobody should miss. It’s well worth pairing the viewing with the 1993 version as they complement each other.

While finishing this post I discovered that there will be a new, Russian Stalingrad which should be released in 2013. Directed by Fedor Bondarchuk, starring August Diehl. I’m really looking forward to that.

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Fortress of War aka Brestskaya krepost (2010) or The Best War Movie in 20 Years?

People who have seen this movie have called it “The best war movie ever” or “The best European war movie in 20 years” or simply “Superior”, “A masterpiece, “Brilliant”. Needless to say that I couldn’t wait to watch Fortress of War aka Brestskaya krepost. What did I think? It is an absolutely stunning movie. Beautifully filmed and acted. A really great achievement on more than one level. It’s complex, dense and intense and calls for a second watching as you can hardly absorb it all in a first viewing. Is it the best? It sure is one of them.

The story of Fortress of War reminded me of the Nanjing massacre in which Japanese forces butchered Chinese civilians. In this case German soldiers butcher Russian soldiers and civilians. The Brest Fortress, located near the city of Brest, housed soldiers and their families. The narrator of the movie is a little boy. We hear his voice in the off at first, it’s the voice of an old man who remembers the most horrible days of his life. Life at the Fortress is deceivingly peaceful. It’s 1941 and there are rumours of war but nobody believes them. The superior officers even go as far as punishing those who spread these rumours.

How lucky for the Germans. Their surprise attack is succesful and shatters in a few minutes all the false hopes and pre-conceived ideas of war. After the initial 10-15 minutes of quiet storytelling, the next two hours are combat intense like I haven’t seen it often. The effects and battles are extremely convincing and well-done. There are only very few CGI moments (aviation-related) that aren’t 100% convincing, all the other effects are very authentic looking. The fights and battles are fought on three sides and the story moves between these groups of soldiers and their commanders. The little  boy of the beginning moves between the parties and links the stories. He carries water and messages from one group to the other. While they are fighting off the Germans and try to break out of the fortress, the Germans also attack them by air and drop bombs. The devastation and casualties are huge.

The fights last a few days in which water is scarce and the morale gets lower and lower. A Russian bomber pilot manages to land in the fortress and brings the most demoralizing news. The Germans have not only taken Brest but are marching towards Minsk. There will be no reinforcements who will help them defend the fortress. As the families were also in the fortress there are a number of side stories told. As it becomes more and more obvious that they will not escape this trap, soldiers and officers start to kill themselves and their loved ones. A few send them out of the fortress hoping that they will survive as prisoners of the Germans. They will all have different fates as the movie tells us. Some will be shot, a few survive.

The directors have been accused of propaganda. It is true that the Germans are shown as treacherous and evil. I didn’t mind this. This movie tries to give an insider’s perspective, the view of someone who was there that day. Do you honestly think that anyone present there seeing the mass of dead bodies, humans and horses, the constant shelling and bombing, rape and violence would have for one second thought about the fact that not all Germans are evil? Those who call this movie propaganda should think about the fact, that they are watching it now, 70 years after the massacre took place, sitting either in a comfortable cinema chair or on the couch or sofa at home.

How do you like your war movies? Combat intense? – You will love this one. Not too much CGI? – You will adore this movie. Convincing effects? – You will be very pleased. Historically accurate? – You will be satisfied. With beautiful pictures? You will be thrilled. Complex characters? – Yeah well, that’s  a little flaw but it stems from the fact that there are so many independent groups fighting in parallel.  The characters  are still interesting and endearing. Watch this beautiful and intense movie as soon as you can!

Fortress of War does belong on the Children in War Movies: A List.

The whole movie can be watched on YouTube. This is just a little teaser.

Italiani Brava Gente aka Attack and Retreat (1964) Needs to be remastered

I was wondering the other day (since I’m in the middle of reading Elsa Morante’s La Storia aka History) if there were any Italian war movies on the Italians on the Eastern front. Purely accidentally I found this movie Italiani Brava Gente aka Attack and Retreat, an Italian-Russian co-production.

Italiani Brava Gente depicts the unsuccessful and tragic Battle of the Don. The Italians role during WWII wasn’t exactly glorious (I’m not talking of the Resistance!) and this movie seems to bear testimony of this.

There are bits and pieces of it on YouTube but, as you will see, in very bad condition. This is deplorable as the movie looks very interesting. If ever a movie needed to be remastered, I think it’s this one. And yes, you see correctly, Peter Falk is in it.

Has anyone seen this or any other Italian war movie (apart from Roma, Open City aka Roma, Città Aperta)?

Enemy at the Gates (2001) or The Duel of Two Snipers

It’s interesting how often people mention Enemy at the Gates as one of their favourite war movies, yet I do not see it included very often in more official Best of Lists. I wonder why and can only guess. Maybe because it is too esthetic? Hardly ever have ruins looked this good. Or is it because of the love story? I must admit, I had a problem with it. I don’t mind a love story, although it is mostly a bit tacky in a war movie, but I would have liked this one to be left out. I thought it spoilt an otherwise perfect movie. And I think another cast would have been better as well, apart from an excellent Ed Harris, I didn’t care for the actors. Despite all these reservations, I think it is an excellent movie. The central story is suspenseful and it is one of the most beautifully filmed war movies ever and certainly one of those I will re-watch. And don’t you just love movies about snipers?

Stalingrad 1942. The city is under siege. The German army hopes to win the war and to secure the oil fields near the Caspian Sea. The Russians are well aware if they lose Stalingrad, it is over. The losses are high, morale is low and a little bit of propaganda might do every one a lot of good. That’s why Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins) thinks its high time to fabricate a hero and charges Danilov, an important oficer of the Communist Party, with this mission.

Enemy at the Gates is loosely based on the story of the famous Russian sniper Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law). Vassili has learned to shoot at an early age, and now, in his early twenties he is the best sniper in the Russian army. Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) decides to pick him, and turn him into the hero Khrushchev is looking for. Vassili gets newspaper coverage and publicity and soon his fame is known far beyond the Russian borders and especially the Germans are well aware what a dangerous enemy he is.

Amidst the rubble and the ruins we see two parallel stories unfold. The first story line, follows a love triangle. Through Danilov Vassili meets the Jewish woman Tania (Rachel Weisz). Both men are in love with her but as it seems Tania has only eyes for Vassili. This love triangle is frankly annoying and disrupts the movie. It isn’t even very plausible.

The second story line revolves around the competition between Major König (Ed Harris), a famous German sniper, and Vassili. König is sent to Stalingrad to take out Vassili. All the parts of this second story line are quite gripping. We see the men hunt each other, we see how they get to know each other, how they try to find out how the other will react, how and from where he will shoot, how they try to ambush each other.

Snipers are endlessly patient. They don’t just shoot wildly, they aim carefully, take their time, observe and shoot only when they are fairly sure of hitting their target. Enemy at the Gates perfectly captures this cat-like hunter quality of the sniper and that’s what makes this film so watchable despite its flaws.

The director Jean-Jacques Annaud is famous for his cinematography. He has made one of the visually most compelling movies The Bear or L’ours . Enemy at the Gates is equally stunning from a cinematographic perspective.

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.