After an unnecessary and clunky framing device that finds a Russian man rescuing trapped Germans after the 2011 Japanese earthquake, we land in the thick of it: Stalingrad, November 1942, during one of World War II's worst battles.
A small, ragtag group of Russian soldiers and sailors captures a building near the strategically vital Volga River and, from it, fend off a slightly larger group of Nazis (approaching ragtag status themselves). Around them in the bombed-out, persistently burning city are a handful of citizens simply trying to survive.
Fedor Bondarchuk's film is fairly typical of the genre — a microcosm-of-war battle for a tiny bit of ground, while also allowing for various heroic and sentimental stories to unfold among the troops. The Russians, whose group includes an opera singer, are humanized by the building's lone occupant, a timid teen-age girl whom they protect. Across the square, a relatively sympathetic Nazi officer falls in love with a Russian woman.
Stalingrad is Russia's first 3-D IMAX movie, and that showy technology is just one of the tools in Bondarchuk's kit to make a highly romanticized visual orgy of war atrocities — from symphonic music and slow motion to constantly falling ash and tanks running over statues of children. (It's rated PG-13, so it's the comic-book version of war horrors.)
The 3-D helps the elaborately reconstructed sets of ruined Stalingrad feel more realistic. On the other hand, when our heroes amid the murk are spot-lit with golden light, Bondarchuk's romanticism is laughably old-fashioned. The film was a big hit in Russia, and when you scope the slow-motion majesty of Russian soldiers running headlong, guns blazing, into the German trenches, while on fire, it's easy to see why.