Cast members of Russia’s biggest movie ever talked about balancing spectacular IMAX images with still-contentious Russian/German relations
Attendees of the Wrap-hosted foreign-language awards contender screening series at the Landmark aren't often asked to put on their 3D glasses before the subtitles commence. Neither have many (if any) of the previous films in the series been produced with IMAX in mind.
But Russia's “Stalingrad” heralds a different breed of international Oscars submission — one that would do Michael Bay proud, TheWrap managing editor Josh Dickey informed the crowd before Thursday night's showing of the $30 million World War II epic.
Since being released in its homeland less than two months ago, “Stalingrad” has already become the biggest-grossing Russian movie of all time, and there may be some American action buffs reading a fully subtitled movie for the first time in their lives when the film opens in America next year, regardless of how Oscar voters take to it. “It's your ‘Titanic,’ your ‘Avatar,'” Dickey told the visiting cast members at the post-screening Q&A.
Except that one of the leading actors, Thomas Kretschmann, who plays a Nazi captain, was quick to separate himself from that Russian nationalist pride. He was the sole German expatriate in the cast.
“And it's my second ‘Stalingrad' already,” he pointed out. “My first film actually was called ‘Stalingrad,’ too, 20 years ago” — but that version was produced in his native Germany, i.e., the losing country in the titular battle, which took place from 1942-43. “So when I got the script, I found it kind of funny to be getting the same film (concept) a second time, from the other side.”
The 1993 German “Stalingrad” that Kretschmann starred in, bore little resemblance to this Russian one, especially in scale. “I've done a few big films before, like (Peter Jackman's) ‘King Kong,'” the actor said, “but when I came to the set, it was so huge. I'd never seen anything like it before.”
His love interest (of a sort) in the film is a Russian peasant played by Yanina Studilina, who found herself similarly overwhelmed when she got to the film's intricately constructed and dressed St. Petersburg location. “The (biggest) part of the budget as far as I know went to build this actual set,” she said. “If you came to the set, you could see every detail. It’s not done on the green screen. It took about two years to build this set… You can go on a (walking) excursion for about 15 minutes.”
Studilina pointed out that director Fedor Bondarchuk has a legacy to live up to with wartime cinema and, although it went unspoken, possibly with the Oscars, too. His father, Sergei Bondarchuk, directed a seven-hour adaptation of “War and Peace” that won the foreign language Academy Award in 1969. “That’s a fantastic movie,” Studilina said, “but I think every generation needs its own version of the war (movie). And ‘Stalingrad' is not only a drama about love and honor, it’s also really powerful visually with the 3D [and, in selected locations, of course, IMAX] and I think for the youngsters, it’s easier to understand what our grandparents had gone through.”
The actress asked for some elder advice along the way. “When I got cast in this movie, I called my grandmother to tell me some things about the war, and she told me that the most difficult part for her was still to hear the German language.” Maybe that should have been a tip-off about the controversy that would come to envelop her and Kretschmann after the film's release.
“The director came to me and said ‘Thomas, you’re not aware, but this is the first time that we in Russia show a German character in that light, that he’s not a heel-clicking Nazi screaming around and shooting people all day',” Kretschmann said. “There was a little shitstorm when the film came out in Russia. Over the Internet, people tried to get signatures together to ban the film, because of that.”
“You just cannot imagine how many critics I get for performing that part [of the Russian mistress],” said Studilina. “Critics were really offended by the fact that a Russian woman falls in love with a German solider. But I personally think love can transcend national, religious, language, any barriers… For (the character of) Masha, love was a cocoon that kept away the horror of war.”
For the actors, there were the horrors of ashes to deal with, as the 71-day shoot involved almost nonstop exposure to fake residue from burnt buildings drifting about like snowflakes. “They were blowing stuff in the air the whole time,” said Kretschmann. “I saw the producers standing around with the face masks, and I was thinking, ‘What about me?’ It didn’t look healthy, the set, let’s put it that way.”
As the only German on the Russian production, Kretschmann took the liberty of rewriting his own dialogue to make it more accurate. “It felt great to have the trust of the director to do it, but on the other hand it felt like a terrible responsibility, because I could have said whatever I wanted to and nobody on the set would have known!”