There have been numerous movies about World War II in the 70 years since it ended in 1945. Hollywood has certainly been at the forefront of telling the stories of brave soldiers who fought in the war, but other countries have told their own stories with a fresh perspective unsullied by the normal Hollywood tropes.
The battle of Stalingrad is one such story, where a small group of Russian soldiers fended off an overwhelming German army that were trying to take over an important building and adjoining square that would give them an advantage in the war.
Taking on the massive undertaking of telling this story in a way that could relate to modern moviegoers is filmmaker Fedor Bondarchuk, a Russian actor-turned-director whose previous film was a two-part sci-fi epic, but who decided to create a WWII movie for modern audiences by filming in 3D and including the type of large-scale set pieces Russian moviegoers have come to expect from watching a slew of imported American movies. Obviously, Bondarchuk’s plan worked, as not only did Stalingrad become the first Russian film to screen in IMAX 3D theaters, but it also went on to become the highest-grossing film in Russia ever.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Bondarchuk last week to talk about the movie which will be released nationwide in IMAX 3D theaters, making it the widest IMAX release for a foreign film in North America. (Note: English is not Bondarchuk’s primary language so we had to fudge some of his answers a bit to make the interview more readable.)
ComingSoon.net: It’s pretty exciting to see a foreign film in IMAX 3D, because we don’t see it that often. Fedor Bondarchuk: For me, it’s was all a great experience because it’s the first Russian film screened in IMAX ever, then we’ll have a release in China and for me, it was absolutely new territory and it was new and unknown for the audience, so every day for me is like a new era or something like that.
CS: It’s an interesting decision to do a historical war movie after your last two-part film, which was science fiction. Was this something you had an eye on and wanted to do for a long time? Bondarchuk: Early in my career, after I graduated from the Moscow Film Institute, I directed music videos and commercials and my first tribute into cinema was a film about the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan. It was a story about the end of the 90s and journalists, every time they saw “The Ninth Company,” which was the name of my first film, they talk about a music video type of attitude and they told me, “Okay, this director comes from music videos, so that’s why it looks like music videos or like commercials, and it’s just entertainment.” It was the same story with “Stalingrad” and its 3D and IMAX technology, every time the conservative part of the audience thought it was impossible to create a new type of language, a new genre with the instruments of 3D and IMAX, but for me, it was very important to use all these things. Me and my colleagues, first of all my art department and DoP, were trying to create a new cinema language. Because we have a very conservative attitude towards the theme of World War II. My producer was a director and he directed a film about World War II and he was a veteran of World War II. On the one hand, we have a new audience that likes American movies and all these types of genres like comedies, genre movies, cartoons, etc. etc, but for Russian directors and producers and directors of photography, we are all very conservative about the theme of World War II. Any example of trying to create a new type of language, trying to write a script or trying not to do the classical or conservative type of color correction. Our audience, especially young audiences, the attitude towards these types of experiments is negative, so for me, “Stalingrad” is a revolutionary step in my cinema biography, but it was my choice. From the first conversations in the pre-production period, I told all my crew, all my partners and all my colleagues, that I’m trying to shoot a film that I’ve never seen.
CS: I know you shot the movie in 3D, but did you have any access to IMAX cameras? Bondarchuk: No, we don’t use IMAX cameras. This is 100% 3D stereo shooting. We didn’t convert any frame, but we didn’t use IMAX cameras. During the first days of shooting, we sent the rough cuts of “Stalingrad” to IMAX to the studio of Greg Foster, and after the first week of the shooting period, I understood that we’ll have a chance to convert our “Stalingrad” to IMAX format, so I have my sterographer, he has a small examples of how to use IMAX format during the shooting period with my playback. In the first weeks of the shooting period, I understood that we had a chance to convert our film to IMAX. When we had our final edited version of “Stalingrad,” we would send it to L.A. and then we signed the contract with IMAX so in the final, we shot it in 3D and then converted it to the IMAX format.
CS: I wanted to ask about creating the iconic location of the plaza and the building in Stalingrad. Bondarchuk: It’s a very interesting story, because I think we were the last filmmaker to build a real stage because now in this period of time. We built it all outside St. Petersburg, the capitol of Russia, but now there is a time when we would use CGI work to create this scene, but in our film we really built all these buildings, all these monuments, all the streets and all the houses, up in St. Petersburg. I think we’re the only ones and the last ones in the whole world who work like this, because I think now this is the period of CGI scenes and CGI kingdoms.
CS: And then of course, you ended up destroying it all afterwards. Bondarchuk: Yeah, unfortunately. Yes, that’s a very good question. After our shooting period, this stage, this location, looked like a museum and my idea was to build an IMAX theater to have the children and audiences who worked on the streets of Stalingrad in November 1942 at the end of that excursion can go up to the stage in St. Petersburg and see “Stalingrad” there on the IMAX screen. That was my idea, but unfortunately (that didn’t happen).
CS: That’s too bad. One thing I thought was impressive was the battle choreography, because some of those scenes were almost like a ballet the way the soldiers interact. Was that something worked out way in advance? Bondarchuk: I used slow motion. For example, it was all a part (of the movie) from the beginning of our conversations. It’s all about creating a new genre by shooting all these fight scenes with this fight choreography in high speed with slow motion. It was my idea, but all this work was done by Russian (choreographers and stunt men).
CS: I was curious about the Thomas Kretchmann role playing a German officer, who falls for a Russian woman. Was that very controversial to have a German as a prominent lead character in the movie, because it essentially humanizes him even though the Germans are the enemy in this. Bondarchuk: For me, it was very important to have a German protagonist in my film because in the history of Soviet films, we often have caricatures of German characters and for me, it was important to create a strong character to represent the enemy. Thomas Kretchmann was one of the members of the Olympic team of Eastern Germany, then he spent three days trying to leave Eastern Germany to Western Germany. Just imagine, if the army of million of Germans in Stalingrad looks like a million Thomas Kretchmanns. That was very important for me, because we tried again not to do caricature personalities or doing funny fat Germans with funny glasses and funny weapons. It was the most powerful military machine in Europe, maybe in the whole world, so that’s why for me as a director, it was so important to have all the characters be strong.
CS: Why do you think a movie about World War II has resonated so much with Russian audiences today? It’s been 70 years since Stalingrad Bondarchuk: The answer is that we created a new type of cinema language, this is my answer. That’s it.
CS: Any idea what you want to do next? You must be getting a lot of offers to direct American films after the success of “Stalingrad.” Bondarchuk: I’m reading a script here in the States, trying to find a new measure. (laughs)
Stalingrad opens nationwide in IMAX 3D theaters on Friday, February 28.