Top 10 Films Set During Operation Barbarossa

On June 22, 1941, German Fuhrer Adolf Hitler – who at the time was “the absolute master of the most formidable fighting machine the world had ever seen”* – launched his ambitious attack on the Soviet Union, a move which would eventually help decimate his adopted country and split its borders for the next 45 years. Mark Fraser looks at 10 movies which take place during this blood-soaked military campaign.

WARNING: This list contains spoilers.

Stalingrad (Fedor Bondarchuk, 2013)

The colossal battle for Stalingrad – which was one of the major turning points of the Second World War (and arguably marked the true beginning of the end for Hitler) – took place between August 23, 1942 and February 2, 1943, during which time the German Sixth Army and Fourth Panzer Division invaded (read pulverised) the “model city … with its engineering plants, municipal parks and tall white apartment blocks looking across the great Volga” (Antony Beevor, Stalingrad, 1998, p 11) before being encircled and forced to surrender by the Russians. Set around the time the Soviet counter-offensive was starting to kick in (November, 1942), this movie follows a group of five brave Red Army soldiers (Pyotr Fyodorov, Dmitriy Lysenkov, Andrey Smolyakov, Alexey Barabash and Sergey Bondarchuk Jr) who are holed-up in a bombed out apartment building as they fight the Nazis, stave off battle fatigue and try to protect an attractive civilian woman (Katya, played by Maria Smolnikova), whose family has been killed in the conflict. A romance soon develops between the orphaned adult and the heroic Captain Gromov (Fyodorov), who also has his hands full trying to outwit his enemy counterparts – the almost-as-honourable Hauptmann Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann) and sadistic Oberstleutnant Henze (Heiner Lauterbach). Essentially romantic in tone and made to accommodate the 3D market, this impressive looking production – with its lavish special effects and spectacular set pieces – is what a World War II actioner might look like if Guy Ritchie directed it.

Leningrad AKA Attack On Leningrad (Aleksandr Buravsky, 2009)

At the Nuremberg Trials, the Soviet Union maintained 632,000 people had died during the blockade of Leningrad (aka St Petersburg) – which started in September 1941 and effectively didn’t end until January 1944. Some of the history books, however, suggest this figure is somewhere closer to 1.5 million. From the outset of the siege around 3 million city residents found themselves encircled – and then bombarded – by the Germans after the Russian Government failed to evacuate them in time. According to historian Alexander Werth, the winter of 1941-42 was particularly brutal for the civilian population, with 200,000 people dying from starvation during December and January alone**. Leningrad takes place around the start of the blockade and more or less follows the plight of British foreign correspondent Kate Davis (Mira Sorvino), who is injured in the conflict and rescued by Russian resistance fighter Nina (Olga Sutulova) before finding refuge with some of the city’s displaced denizens. Unlike the above-mentioned Stalingrad, this is no hard core action movie. Rather, it ends up being a sometimes hit-and-miss depiction of day-to-day life under a brutal form of extreme and unforgiving military occupation.

Ballad Of A Soldier AKA Ballao o soldate (Grigori Chukhrai, 1959)

When he wipes out a couple of German tanks in the field of battle, young Private Alyosha Skvortsov (Vladimir Ivashov) is given six days’ leave to visit his peasant mother (Antonina Maksimova) and repair her leaking roof. Thus begins a poignant black and white road movie – a journey fraught with hurdles and frustration, but dominated by compassion, generosity and forgiveness – during which the teenager witnesses first-hand the impact the war is having on his home country while slowly falling in love with fellow traveler Shura (Zhanna Prokhorenko).

Enemy At The Gates (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 2001)

Top 10 War FilmsAnother film about Stalingrad, this time loosely based on the exploits of super sniper Vasily Zaitsev (1915-1991), who reportedly killed 225 enemy soldiers during the five month siege. While he is initially thrown into the war as cannon fodder, the skills of the young sharp shooter (Jude Law) are noticed by Soviet commissar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), who uses them for propaganda purposes. Very soon Zaitsev is drawn into a cat and mouse game with specialist German rifleman Major Erwin Konig (Ed Harris), who’s ruthless existential determination is being driven by the death of his son (an earlier casualty in the battle). The tenacious Russian also becomes romantically entangled with militia member Tania (Rachel Weisz) – a development which attracts the attention of the authorities after a jealous Danilov turns on him. While many of the film’s subplots are melodramatic contrivances, part of its opening act – in which helplessly exposed and unarmed Red Army infantrymen are shot to pieces by diving German stukas as they try to cross the Volga – is just as harsh as Steven Spielberg’s depiction of Uncle Sam’s arrival at Omaha Beach during the beginning of Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004)

This is where it all ended – in Hitler’s Berlin bunker circa late April of 1945 as a deliriously crazed and exhausted Fuhrer (Bruno Ganz), along with members of his cabinet and staff, watch helplessly as the advancing Soviets push aside the remnants of the Nazi military as they close in on the German capital. One of the rawest depictions of pitiful self-delusion and monumental failure ever to hit the screen.

Cross Of Iron (Sam Peckinpah, 1977)

A collection of battle-weary German infantrymen stationed along the collapsing Eastern Front find that the true enemy comes in the form of a cowardly and incompetent aristocratic Prussian captain (Maximillian Schell), who will stop at nothing to win the coveted Iron Cross. In the end this scheming officer is simply no match for the unit’s resourceful spiritual leader Corporal (and later Senior Sergeant) Steiner (James Coburn). It’s surprising that director Sam Peckinpah didn’t turn to the war film sooner after his career hit the skids during the first half of the 1970s given his shoot-‘em-up-in-slow-motion approach seemed to be quite conducive to this genre. This was arguably his last good film.

Trial On The Road AKA Proverka na Dorogakh (Aleksey German, 1971)

One of the few Russian films to acknowledge that there was a significant number of traitorous Soviet soldiers who – either through coercion or out of desperate opportunism – defected to the Wehrmacht. When Lazarov (Vladimir Zamansky) is captured wearing a German uniform by some partisans, he is given the chance to redeem himself by two of the outfit’s commanders (Rolan Bykov and Anatoly Solonitsyn), a pact which eventually leads him to a shoot-out with some occupying Nazi troops stationed at a rail junction.

Stalingrad (Joseph Vilsmaier, 1993)

Of the 260,000-300,000 German soldiers who invaded the titular city in 1942, only 91,000 (including 22 generals) were taken prisoner. Out of this lot, just 9,000 eventually made it home after spending the better part of a decade being worked as slaves in Soviet gulags. Five of the six leading characters in this opus (played by Dominique Horwitz, Thomas Kretschmann, Jochen Nickel, Sebastian Rudolph, Sylvester Groth and Karel Heřmánek) don’t manage to reach POW status, with “Rollo” (Nickel) being the only one who doesn’t die on screen (although it’s never made clear if he is eventually captured after the Nazis capitulate). A grim, but nevertheless sweeping, work which not only covers the infamous street fighting in the city, but also the conflict on its outskirts as the protagonists – as part of their penance for an act of rebellion – knock out a few advancing Red Army tanks in a snow-covered field. Groth, who played Joseph Goebbels in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) – is particularly good as a disgraced officer whose bitter (and well-founded) cynicism eventually pushes him to suicide.

Ivan’s Childhood AKA Ivan Detsvo (Andrey Tarkovsky, 1962)

Judging from his own words, one of the things which drew the late Russian director Andrey Tarkovsky to Vladimir Bogomolov’s 1957 short story Ivan was the fact it was not about “violent military clashes, or the ins and out of reversals at the front”, but rather what happened during the intervals between reconnaissance missions. In effect, the film maker said, the author had “charged this interval with a disturbing, pent-up intensity reminiscent of the cramped tension of a coiled spring that has been tightened to the limit”. This approach, Tarkovsky noted, revealed some “hidden cinematic potential”. “It opened up possibilities for recreating in a new way the true atmosphere of war, with its hyper-tense nervous concentration, invisible on the surface of events but making itself felt like a rumbling beneath the ground” (all from page 17 of the director’s 1986 book Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema). At the end of the day Ivan’s Childhood is all this and much, much more.

Come And See AKA Idi i smotri (Elem Klimov, 1985)

Possibly one of the most anti-German World War II films ever made, with the Wehrmacht being portrayed as nothing more than a brutally cold-blooded killing and raping machine. As with the Ivan’s Childhood, it follows the journey of a young Russian peasant teenager (Florya, played by Aleksei Kravchenko) as he joins the partisans, only to be detached from his unit following an air bombardment of its camp. While he is allowed one final moment of childhood – a strange and surreal sequence during which he romps in a rain-drenched forest with the slightly older Glasha (Olga Mironova) – Floyra is brought back to reality when his family is massacred, after which he embarks on a dangerous (not to mention disastrous) food gathering mission for the surviving members of his rural community. While on the run, he stumbles across the Nazi extermination of a small Belarusian village – a scene so horribly full of callous cruelty that it makes one want to see the perpetrators get torched when they are eventually captured by the home team later on in the story. Although Come and See suffers from a brief bout of heavy-handedness during its final reel, it remains not only a harrowing cinematic experience, but also a worthy reminder that war truly is hell.

FOOTNOTES
*John G Stoessinger: Why Nations Go To War, St Martin’s Press, New York, 1982, p 37
**Alexander Werth: Russia at War 1941-1945, Pan Books, London, 1964, p 301

Written and compiled by Mark Fraser

Over to you: what are your fave films set during Operation Barbarossa?

Discover more writing on film by Mark Fraser
“Salvador” Is More Revolt Than Revolution | “The Deer Hunter” Remains An Adult Fairy Tale | “The Train” Still One Hell Of A Ride | “Barry McKenzie Holds His Own” Maintains Its Irreverent Grip | Umberto Lenzi’s “Eaten Alive” Is A Hard Act To Swallow | William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer” Is A Curiously Mistreated Masterpiece | “To Catch A Thief” Shows Hitchcock Dabbling In Blandness

Discover More: Top 10 films based on the Second World War

About the Author
Mark is a film journalist, screenwriter and former production assistant from Western Australia.

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  1. ArchE Reply

    The Soviet eye, cold and disconnected yet raw with an emotion that’s like kindling doused in petrol and unceremoniously penetrated by fire lighters makes some of these efforts the most potent experiences of war I’ve ever had. Come and See and Ivan’s Childhood are essential viewing.

    Cross of Iron is a mishmash of themes and accents but I’ll let you off including it because Peckinpah’s off days are better than most filmmakers’ best work.

  2. Dan Grant Reply

    Only seen one of these films and haven’t heard of 7 of the others. But your articles is really well done. I guess I’m adding more films to my list of films to see. Good job, Mark.

  3. Callum Reply

    So many films here for me to catch up with. I really enjoyed the more recent Stalingrad and Enemy at the Gates so hopefully some of these others will also be of interest. I’m particularly eager to see the Peckinpah.

  4. Dan Reply

    A unique, fascinating and eclectic list featuring some exceptional films, many that deserve to be seen a wider audience. Ivan’s Childhood is a very affecting film, as is Come and See; both have an emotional punch that lands a telling blow.

    Downfall is another incredible film, possibly my favourite of the selection partly due to Bruno Ganz’s performance. Mostly, however, it’s because of the painstaking research that went into producing a realistic and faithful story drawing on its own inherent drama and emotive context.

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