Battle of Stalingrad

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Mar 28 07:08:45 MST 2001

Violating history: Two books tell the truth about the most horrific battle
of our time -- and a movie desecrates it.
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By Gary Kamiya

March 28, 2001 | As I walked out of Jean-Jacques Annaud's "Enemy at the
Gates," I found myself wondering: How much historical respect does a
director owe a subject like Stalingrad? I don't know, but I do know that
Annaud doesn't have enough.

Most of the people who are flocking to see the film, which is this week's
third-highest grossing release in the country, are presumably drawn to it
by word of mouth about its big-budget opening battle scene and its catchy
plot, a duel between two master snipers. If they know anything at all about
the battle of Stalingrad, however, I hope they're leaving the theater
feeling vaguely uneasy -- if not outraged.

Why? Because World War II's Stalingrad is just too momentous, too epic, too
dreadful an event in the history of this century to be used, as Annaud uses
it, as a mere colorful background for a formulaic genre film. "Saving
Private Ryan," despite its sentimentality, not only brought the terrible
reality of the Omaha Beach landing home to viewers in a way no film had
done before, it remained essentially true to the grim realities of being a
G.I. on combat patrol -- due allowances being made for Hollywood license.
War is hell from the beginning of Spielberg's film, and it stays hell until
the end. In "Enemy at the Gates," war starts out as hell, then it turns
into heck and stays there.

That would be bad enough, though hardly unexpected, if this were just
another glib, conventional war movie, unable to reconcile the demands of
bloody realism with Hollywood's usual feelgood requirements. But this is a
movie about Stalingrad -- the worst battle of the worst war in human
history, a war that ended not so very long ago. It is almost unbelievable,
and historically offensive, that a filmmaker would choose this story, spend
close to $100 million reproducing its ninth-circle-of-hell atmosphere --
right down to the Russian city's bizarre fountain, with statues of children
playing ring-around-the-rosie around an alligator -- and blithely toss it
all away to make a hackneyed "duel" movie, essentially an updated western
complete with a ridiculously contrived love triangle, in which the battle
itself is reduced to nothing more than a visually stimulating backdrop. Is
World War II so meaningless to us now, so distant, that its most hideous
battle can simply be turned into aesthetic wallpaper?

By an odd coincidence, Stalingrad reared its head before I had even heard
of Annaud's film. Poking around the stacks of books in the office recently,
I chanced to pick up a book called "Stalingrad 1942-1943: The Infernal
Cauldron." I had been something of a military history buff when a teenager,
and knew a little about Stalingrad: It was one of the decisive battles of
World War II, shifting the tide on Germany's invasion of Russia. It went on
for close to six months, turned a large city into rubble and left over a
million men dead. I also remembered from William L. Shirer's biography that
it was Hitler who was responsible for trapping his troops in the ruined
city in the heart of winter. The German 6th Army was surrounded, but it
still might have been able to break out -- if the Fuhrer had given the
order. But obsessed with the symbolism of the struggle over a city named
after Stalin, and willing to sacrifice a quarter of a million men to make
the point that "Where the soldier of Germany sets foot, there he remains!"
Hitler refused. Those German troops who were not slaughtered by the
Russians or killed by starvation, cold or disease finally surrendered: 95
percent of them died as well.

As a teenager I also read a little paperback called "Last Letters From
Stalingrad." The letters, which were purportedly written by the doomed
German soldiers caught in the Russian vise, were heartbreaking: searing
final testaments written by men who knew they were going to die. I have
since learned that they were probably fakes, but they made a powerful
impression on me at the time.

That was the sum total of my knowledge of Stalingrad as, casting about for
something to read one night, I opened Stephen Walsh's oversize, lavishly
illustrated book.

As one gets older, certain historical events that are receding into the
past suddenly play an odd trick: They get closer. Although the war ended
only eight years before I was born, it never felt even slightly
contemporary to me when I was a teenager. It was a grand clash of men and
weapons that had happened in some distant, parallel universe. It might as
well have been the Crusades.

It feels a lot closer now. Part of the reason is the simple passage of
time: As you get older, the entire shape of your own life starts coming
into view, and you realize that 50 years isn't the eternity you once
thought it was. Then there's death. You know it slightly better, and this
knowledge somehow keeps every fatality in front of you, like a wrong
answer, a flaw in God's eye, a nightmare that you're condemned to keep
seeing again and again. But remembering what happened -- what really
happened, not the neat, bugle-playing death of the old movies but the
screaming, incomprehensible pain and terror of actual war -- is more than
just a nightmare. It's an act of solidarity, of acknowledgment -- your own
hands reaching up to ring the bell that tolls for all of us.

Stalingrad was not the Holocaust, but its scale, its bleakness, its
challenge to morality, to faith in a meaningful universe, demands an act of
memory. That is the homage the present owes to the past.

And as I read Walsh's book -- and then, drawn hopelessly into the battle's
consuming, hypnotic void, the definitive work on Stalingrad, Anthony
Beevor's 1998 masterpiece "Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943" -- a
whole army of ghosts rose up.

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Louis Proyect
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