Stalingrad 3D: “It’s not Eisenstein. It’s all new rules”

Action director Fedor Bondarchuk, the point man of a new wave of Russian film-making, on bringing the battle of Stalingrad to the world in eye-popping Imax 3D

True grit: Fedor Bondarchuk on the set of Stalingrad

True grit: Fedor Bondarchuk on the set of Stalingrad


T here a re few subjects more sacred in Russian iconography (a word that nation would readily understand) than the battle of Stalingrad. Not many battles have caused such an abundance of casualties. Lasting five months, the conflict was, by most historians’ reckoning, the most significant of the second World War.

So, there were, understandably enough, some objections when Fedor Bondarchuk, a hip director from a theatrical dynasty, announced that he was intending to structure a 3D Imax drama around the event. Bondarchuk’s noisy, ambitious Stalingrad does what a hundred US movies have done with that country’s legends of the same war. It inserts a love story into the action. It focuses on fictionalised characters. But such comparisons have not quelled the griping.

“The screenings have polarised audiences,” he says patiently. “On the one hand, there are viewers that applaud when the title comes up. On the other, there are aggressive responses on the internet about the very idea of using 3D and Imax for a war drama.”

There was even some whingeing among the production team. It seems as if, in the years when religion was suppressed, Stalingrad took on the quality of a sacred event.

“There were always questions,” he continues. “Why, why, why Stalingrad? At first nobody could believe – not the DOP, my crew, my designers – what I was doing. They are saying: ‘But this isn’t Marvel or DC comics. This is Stalingrad. This is a war drama. Not cyberpunk.’”

Bondarchuk makes a strong argument for his approach. For all the reverence that Stalingrad attracts, younger people – those with little memory of the Soviet era – have come to view the Great Patriotic War as ancient history. For them, the heroes of that battle seem almost as remote as the Russians who fought Napoleon. The domestic commercial success of Stalingrad has helped bring home the Red Army’s sacrifices to those new Russians.

“For several years, some directors have been trying to create a new kind of language and new kinds of genre,” he says. “In our country, the theme of World War Two is considered oldfashioned. Russian audiences are typically between 15 and 23 years old. They’re young. They’re free. They’ve grown up on international cinema. My dream was to create a new kind of picture and dialogue around a subject that seems conservative for them. For me it was a type of experiment.”

Fedor Sergeyevich Bondarchuk certainly has connections with the earlier era of Soviet theatre and cinema. He is the son of the late Sergei Bondarchuk, prolific actor and director, and actor Irina Skobtseva, officially recognised as an “Honoured Artist” of the Soviet Union. In 1986, then just 20, he appeared in his father’s production of Boris Godunov .

“I spent all of my childhood on film sets,” he says. “All of our family was in cinema. My mother and sister are actresses. It is in the blood.”

Like all Russians of his generation, Bondarchuk’s life has been defined by the political and historical avalanche that swept aside the Soviet bloc. Before 1989, he was one sort of person. After that point, he was somebody else entirely. Of course, the Soviet Union had a great tradition in arthouse cinema. But until recently, the industry had little commercial presence internationally. Nobody is claiming that Stalingrad is going to give Transformers V a run for its money at the box office. But the film does demonstrate that young Russian film-makers do have the right tools at their disposal.

“I grew up in the Soviet Union,” he remembers. “It was another country. When I came out of the army, it was a place without industry. We had no cinema at all for a few years. Even the big studios were only making commercials and music videos. There were no feature films. It took 10 years for features to come back. So, I trained in music videos. And that was an interesting time. I was young. This was a new kind of cinema language.”

Bondarchuk had been studying painting before he was propelled into the army. When he was set free, he took a few acting jobs – including the title role in an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot – and settled down to study the art of cinematography. Indeed, there hardly seems to be a job he hasn’t attempted in the film and TV industry. In 2005, he directed The 9th Company , a tale of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and, when the film became the most successful domestic production that year, found himself pushed to the head of a new mainstream cinema.

“It took six years for me to get 9th Company made. It was hard to get a budget for anything,” he remembers.

The sceptics have made their case in various Russian newspapers. But Bondarchuk’s Stalingrad cannot be ignored. It has received worldwide distribution and kicked up much debate about the responsibilities of the film-maker when tackling history. The film has also demonstrated the extent to which the Russian film-makers are now interacting with the wider industry. You can’t make films like Stalingrad in a vacuum.

“Everything was different,” he admits. “For me, it was unlike anything I had ever worked on. After five days, I thought this is going to be impossible. A lot of the crew was from the United States. The rig was big. But after a few weeks, we worked it out. It was unusual – even how we edited. Normally, editing in 3D is similar to editing for a music video with short cuts. But this material needed something different. And that opened up further possibilities.”

This is not historical cinema as austere Soviets such as Sergei Eisenstein would recognise it. Then again, every country needs a variety of tones in its popular art.

“Look at Gravity ’s 17-minute opening shot: all shot within one frame,” Bondarchuk argues. “Yes, it’s not Eisenstein. It’s not what you learn at the Moscow Institute. It’s all new rules. It’s all new rules.”

What’s the Russian for “vive la différence”?