on May 24, 1995 by Kim Williamson
   "I bet I come out alive and you don't," says Rollo Rohleder (Jochen Nickel), a gruff German noncom seeking valor and an Iron Cross, to Hans Von Witzland (Thomas Kreischmann), an idealistic young lieutenant, as the two Sixth Army soldiers are cattle-carred across summery Russian steppes toward Stalingrad in 1942. Their fear is only infantry's normal fear -- the bullet with one's name on it -- and not the fear of the loss of a world. Which makes sense: To this point, Hitler's blitzkriegs have proved unstoppable. Soon, though, even Rommel's Afrikakorps will be beaten at El Alamein, and the men of the Ranger battalion that "Stalingrad" depicts will find themselves fighting not only overwhelming Russian troops and the arctic snows, but the growing realization that their Fatherland has led them fatally astray.
   In smartly concentrating his attention not on the larger landscape of conflict but on human individuals, German director/co-writer Joseph Vilsmaier ("Herbst-milch") has crafted an effective antiwar epic. (Made several years ago to commemorate the battle's 50th anniversary, the $20 million German production has finally arrived stateside via Strand after a 1993 release here was aborted.) Bloody, icy and relentless, "Stalingrad" does use dramaturgical shorthand to expand its emotional reach by introducing a young Russian boy and a local woman midway, but their recurring appearances from then on -- although significant in theme -- don't carry the simple credibility of the savage war scenes. Nor does the uncompassionate old-line Captain Haller (Dieter Okras), less character than caricature as the locus of the filmmakers' anger. Still, "Das Boot"-style, the film wins compassion, even for some of the aggressors. "It was a pretty silly bet," says Rollo to Hans near the film's conclusion; around them, the frozen Volgan hills have become an open-air morgue for them and for the Wehrmacht dream. Starring Thomas Kreischman and Jochen Nickel. Directed by Joseph Vilsmaier. Written by Johannes Heide, Jurhen Buscher and Joseph Vilsmaier. Produced by Gunther Rohrbach, Hanno Huth and Joseph Vilsmaier. A Strand release. Drama. German-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 135 min
Tags: Starring Thomas Kreischman, Jochen Nickel. Directed by Joseph Vilsmaier. Written by Johannes Heide, Jurhen Buscher and Joseph Vilsmaier, Produced by Gunther Rohrbach, Hanno Huth, Joseph Vilsmaier, Strand, Drama

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