Film4: Sunday 21 June, 9pm
A Soviet troop train disgorges under-armed and ill-prepared Red Army recruits into the mud-splattered slaughter at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942. “The one with the rifle shoots,” intones an officer in a grim litany. “The other one follows. When the one with the rifle is killed, the one following picks up the rifle and shoots.” Among the survivors is Jude Law, a young shepherd from the Urals who quickly proves to be a proficient sniper. Political officer Joseph Fiennes promotes Law’s deadly exploits in morale-boosting propaganda sheets, forcing the Germans to bring in their own expert marksman, Bavarian landowner Ed Harris, head of Berlin’s sniper school. Fiennes insists this is emblematic of the class struggle! Jean-Jacques Annaud’s mightily impressive factitious distillation of Stalingrad’s wartime sacrifices is a curious hybrid. The vivid combat scenes recall the pity and cruelty of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and – the sniper connection, obviously – Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. In between is a swooning romance that harks back to another epic treatment of a tumultuous episode in Russian history, David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago. But, echoed by James Horner’s attractive though derivative score (overplaying the Glory choral work), the inconsistencies of tone and the occasional stilted passages in the script can be overlooked. Simply because the end result is a fitting memorial to the terrible price paid by the Russian people. Bob Hoskins is Nikita Kruschev, and Jude Law’s character is based on Vassili Zaitsev, whose rifle remains on display in Stalingrad as a symbol of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. Law’s opponent, Ed Harris’ Wehrmacht major Konig, actually existed too, although there is no evidence that the two men ever met. There was, after all, a lot of war going on at the time. And Annaud’s powerful film provides a compelling picture of it.