Mountains and Molehills

Stalingrad

U Film Society, starts Friday

Microcosmos

Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

          THOSE WHO'VE SEEN Brother of Sleep know that German director Joseph Vilsmaier has a knack for depicting pain. In fact, Vilsmaier's Stalingrad, a monumentally gory (anti-)war film which the former cinematographer made in 1992, seems predicated on the spectacle of human suffering. Cynically speaking, one way for a first-time director to make an intense debut might be to set his film during the bloodiest battle of the 20th century. On the other hand, if ever a movie deserved to be ultraviolent, or a particular war story deserved to be told, it's this one.

          Marking the first major defeat of the Third Reich in late 1942, and a decisive turning point in World War II, the ill-fated siege on Stalingrad found the German 6th Army being decimated as much by the Russian winter and Hitler's own arrogance as by the Red Army itself; all told, the four-month conflict resulted in one-and-a-half million Russian and German casualties. The fact that Vilsmaier's $14-million epic was released in Germany on the 50th anniversary of the bloodbath pegs it as a belated work of expiation, much like our Vietnam films engaged the enemy--that is, ourselves--in search of catharsis.

          Familiarly, the platoon of Stalingrad is a diverse bunch: One soldier is shy, one is fearless, another is an idealist; each will surrender his innocence just the same. In order to fully accentuate that loss, the movie opens with its young warriors playing cards, sipping beers, and catching rays on the Italian Riviera, enjoying their last hurrah en route to the Russian front. "Time to teach Ivan a lesson," one says, thus cueing the filmmaker to commence his own. After a brief pep talk in which the troops are instructed to "defend Western Christian values," Vilsmaier abruptly cuts to a scene of mass slaughter that makes the Tet Offensive sequence in Full Metal Jacket look like a round of capture the flag. The soldiers shoot each other by accident, lose control of their bladders, and scream for their mothers before dying horribly. A few lucky ones escape through a sewer where rats gnaw on a dead man's face, and emerge in a makeshift medical unit full of shrieking amputees. Winter is still forthcoming; the battle and the film have barely started.

          It is to Vilsmaier's credit that, in over two hours of combat action, not a single moment could be construed as heroic. Indeed, Stalingrad is nearly monolithic in its aim to conjure horror, its message evolving from War is Hell to War is Absolute Hell to, finally, War is Absolute Fucking Hell.

          Would anything else have been appropriate? Although this German war movie seems political only as far as its clear disgust with mass murder, that's quite a bit in the context of commercial cinema. Not coincidentally, Stalingrad has arrived in our town four years late for a one-week run at the last Twin Cities arthouse with the guts to play it. Kudos to U Film, certainly, but shame on the industries (film and print, national and local) that would give this epic such short shrift. One of the movie's subsidiary tragedies is that the people who need it most--the ones who admired the "heroism" of Courage Under Fire, for instance--will probably never see it.

          Stalingrad's sense of infinitesimal futility could only be enhanced by watching Microcosmos, a documentary of insect life that stuns, exhilarates, disturbs, and humbles in equal measure. Zooming in tight on the activities of various little creatures (think of that microscopic shot of teeming ants near the start of Blue Velvet), the film bids to make the smallest actions seem huge--and our own seem small. Not merely a gimmicky display of micro-cinematography, this is an epic war movie, with evolution as the goal of all opposing tribes. Drops of rain hit the earth like bombs. Armies of ants haul seeds as big as themselves into their nests. A fiercely determined beetle strains to push a ball of its own dung up a hill, ingeniously digging a tunnel and rearing up for a big push when the turd becomes impaled on a stick. The heroism of this scene rivals anything in Eisenstein or Griffith, but there's abundant cruelty here, too: The cold efficiency with which a spider cocoons its grasshopper prey is horrifying, and entirely consistent with the way of things up here.

          Ultimately, the struggle to survive appears universal, and often synonymous with violence. But to what end? To propagate the species? A few brief clenches between bugs don't seem enough to suggest love as the point of all existence. But the image of a group of ants collectively building their home does beg the question of what we could accomplish if we all worked together. To think about Microcosmos at all is to consider how tiny everything is, and maybe how precious.

 
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