As hard as it has been to find films about entrepreurship, it has been easy to find films about war. The film page is well stocked with anti-war films since war seems to be of perennial interest whether in the triumphalist films that followed World War II or in the darker modern war films like Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and A Midnight Clear.
I’ve been loathe to add any more war films to the film page. As important an issue as this is, it seems to me fairly well covered by now. But I decided one more had to be on this list. An outstanding film that portrays the state at its most out of control and destructive. A devastating, bleak film that I couldn’t stop watching.
There was a time when war was limited by the king’s purse. Soldiers were payed out of his private money and if he stopped paying they stopped fighting. As imperfect a barrier as it was, this served to keep war making somewhat constrained. With modern taxation and conscription though, the state was able to make war on a new and terrifying scale as demonstrated by the massive French revolutionary army under Napoleon. This development seemed to culminate in the trenches of World War I which saw casualties previously unimaginable. But there was worse to come.
World War II showed that there were still constraints to be left behind. The targeting of civilians through bombing and concentration camps, the subservience of all economy activity to the state and the ideological commitment to “unconditional surrender” led to the emergence of a new, in the modern era at least, kind of war: Total war. With the possible exception of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the combat operation that represents the horrifying pinnacle of total war is the battle of Stalingrad.
With each side spending human life like water, an estimated 1.7 to 2 million Axis and Soviet casualties were lost in this battle that lasted 199 days and destroyed an entire city. Though the battle is widely considered a turning point in the war, this film is entirely uninterested in this battle as a matter of military strategy. Instead the story is about the human cost.
Stalingrad wisely narrows its focus to 3 German soldiers heading to Stalingrad, two veteran grunts, Fritz and Rollo, and an officer, Hans, new to combat and full of patriotism. Upon arriving they realize that something is different in Stalingrad when they see a soldier beating a prisoner of war to death and the officers refusing to discipline the soldier. Things go downhill from there as they face the brutal street fighting that most characterized the battle and eventually the encirclement of an entire German army in the merciless Russian winter. The most dramatic transformation is that of Lieutenant Hans who changes not only due to the general hopelessness of the situation but in particular because of the shooting of civilians. De-humanization is a constant theme throughout the film.
In a rare scene of humanity a German unit calls for a truce with the Soviet unit in the building next to them so each side can retrieve wounded. While doing their grim work, a German soldier spies a Russian pocketing some bacon. He pulls out a piece of bread and holds it out to the Russian. They look at each other nervously and quickly make the exchange. A moment of human cooperation in the midst of destruction.
How bad can the state get? This film answers that question.
In German with English subtitles. Rated R for gruesome war violence. See this review.