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Synapse Films presents
Stalingrad (2002)

"We saw the flares, and we heard the artillery fire. You can hear very well at 40 degrees below zero."
- German Sixth Army Survivor

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: June 26, 2006

Director: Jörg Müllner, Sebastian Dehnhardt, Christian Dieck, Manfred Oldenburg

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (thematic material, disturbing war imagery)
Run Time: 02h:44m:48s
Release Date: June 27, 2006
UPC: 654930305393
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ AA-B B-

DVD Review

Between decades of anticommunist fervor and the Greatest Generation hoopla, one might be forgiven for forgetting (or never knowing) that the bloodiest battle of World War II (and quite possibly of all time) was fought between the Germans and the Russians over a period of six months at the city of Stalingrad, on the Volga River. This set of three television documentaries combines period footage from government archives and film shot by soldiers at the scene with modern recollections from the now-aged survivors of the hellhole that was Stalingrad between August 1942 and February 1943. Although the programs assume a slight familiarity with the battle of Stalingrad and WWII history, they are interesting and will have a strong impact even to viewers without a deep knowledge of these matters.

The first part, The Attack, starts with an overview of the course of the battle that is brief and slightly disorienting. Once it settles down into a detailed chronological examination of the mad attack on Stalingrad, it greatly improves in clarity. The program presents the battle as a conflict of vanities: Hitler was determined to win a propaganda victory by taking the city named after Stalin himself, with Stalin just as determined to hold it for the same reason. Deeming himself a military genius, Hitler insanely split his forces, sending half to secure the oil fields in the Caucasus and the other half to attack Stalingrad. But things didn't turn out nearly as planned, thanks to insufficient men and supply networks. When they arrived at the Caucasus, the Russians had deprived them of the oil by setting the wells ablaze. Meanwhile, the German army seized Stalingrad with little problem after a carpet bombing by the Luftwaffe. Having reduced the city to rubble, however, the Nazi forces soon learned the difficult lesson that occupying a city in chaos in a hostile land is a far different and more difficult matter than seizing it in the first place. This episode contains some of the few humorous moments in the story, such as the Germans finding a cache of camels and using them when gasoline ran short. But the policies of Hitler to promote leaders who conquered with cruelty and barbarity make this a grim story overall. Things were equally grim for the German soldiers, held in disdain by the leadership and not given sufficient equipment or supplies.

Before long, the counterattacking Russians had cut off the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad through a pincers movement, leaving them in a hellish and isolated situation called The Cauldron, or The Kessel. This second part of the documentary focuses on the hardships of the Germans trapped in the city, lacking food and medical supplies, and facing deep subzero temperatures with inadequate clothing. Disease was rampant and death was a constant, with a thousand soldiers dying each day. But the German people heard little or nothing of this, thanks to a compliant media determined to present only the positives of the German army to the people. With a steel ring around the city, and fearing a second attack, Stalin determined to take the city under Operation Winter Storm. Meanwhile, within the city Russian citizens and uncaptured soldiers engaged in terroristic tactics, with snipers picking off the increasingly demoralized Germans. But because Hitler was determined that Stalingrad be kept for its propaganda value (and also to tie down a large chunk of the Russian army), he refused to permit the troops to surrender or return home, although it could have saved many German lives.

The final segment is appropriately named The Doom, which recounts the fall of the city back to the Russians and the subsequent events. One fascinating piece of oral history is a captain from Stalingrad being flown out to speak personally to Hitler, in a vain attempt to get him to see reason. The conditions in the city grew ever more nightmarish, with 40,000 untreated wounded lying in the filth of cellars, while the balance of the German soldiers struggled to survive alongside thousands of Stalingrad's remaining citizens, who had taken to hiding in holes and the sewers. The survivors recount going from horse meat to dog meat to cats and finally turning to cannibalism, while the German officers lived in warm comfort, drinking brandy and vodka and having plenty to eat. These same officers are treated with complete disdain by the survivors of both sides, particularly when recounting the tale of four officers who commandeered a plane meant to remove wounded in order to make their own escape from the city, leaving the others to die. Just as horrific was what happened afterwards, as through disease, starvation and Stalin's work camps, the 100,000 who surrendered were reduced to a mere 6,000 who lived to return to Germany in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The programs were simulcast in both Germany and Russia to substantial acclaim, although this DVD presentation incorporates several minutes of additional footage to each program above and beyond the broadcast versions. The documentaries quite usefully provide perspectives from both German and Russian survivors of the battle, as well as that of civilians who were involved in the battle or whose husbands were trapped in the city. While there is brutality and inhumanity on both sides, there are also kindnesses: some Russian soldiers share food with German prisoners, while some German soldiers hid Russian children from extermination. One point that seems unfinished is the story of General Friedrich Paulus, who commanded the Sixth Army at Stalingrad and eventually surrendered even after being promoted to field marshal (a clear hint from Hitler that he was supposed to kill himself). Although the thread of his story is followed throughout the programs, the resolution isn't included, leaving a feeling of a missing piece (Paulus actually turned collaborator with the Russians and testified for the prosecution at the Nuremberg trials). The programs are compelling viewing, and the interviews are fascinating pieces of vital oral history. Even at a distance of 60 years, the participants are clearly still traumatized by the events of Stalingrad.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The modern portions of the program were shot in HD, and they look excellent, with plenty of detail and no visible artifacting. The period film shows wear and damage as one might expect for film shot under the worst of wartime conditions, and the 1940s color footage has faded badly, but it's all more than acceptable under the circumstances. Synapse's transfer is excellent and no artifacting or ringing was observed.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The presentation is an English dub, with the narration by the uncredited narrator entirely in English. The participants' voices are retained in Russian and German, with English translations being heard over them. Subtitling might have been a better way to approach this, but increased accessibility is probably worth the tradeoff. Enjott Schneider's moving score is mostly heard in the surrounds. Range is good and the audio is quite clean.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
1 Documentaries
2 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: The Doom, 41m:30s

Extras Review: The programs can be played individually, or there is a handy "Play All" feature. Chaptering is a bit thin, with only four stops per hour-long episode. An accumulation of additional recollections of the participants ((17m:15s) contains many more anecdotes that didn't fit into the main narrative. These are subtitled, however, and not dubbed. They're interesting, but the directors were correct in dropping them. A featurette (11m:12s) with Professor Guido Knopp, one of the producers of the documentaries, provides some interesting perspective on both the genesis of these programs and their reception. He has some interesting observations, such as the notion that Stalingrad was both a mass grave and a war crime committed by Hitler against his own soldiers. Finally, Synapse leaves us on a positive note, with a three-minute montage of views of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) today, rebuilt, set to Schneider's score. At the end of the day, there is some hope after all. It's just a matter of surviving.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

An important and moving collection of oral histories that form a compelling narrative of one of the most horrific battles in history. Recommended.


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