War battles can become increasingly violent and brutal when both sides are commanded by intelligent, determined leaders. But their initially steadfast defenses against their opposition can dramatically waver if they engage in relationships, and begin to sympathize with civilians of their enemy governments. This is certainly the case with the characters in the new action war film, ‘Stalingrad,’ the top grossing Russian movie of 2013, and the first Russian film to be presented in IMAX 3D. Directed by Fedor Bondarchuk, the movie shows how soldiers are willing to risk everything to stand up for what they believe in, which can lead to a triumphant struggle that changes the course of history.
‘Stalingrad’ follows Russian soldiers from different divisions as they take shelter in a decrepit building in the middle of the title city. The soldiers find an 18-year-old Russian girl, Katia (Mariya Smolnikova), hiding alone in the building, as she’s the only member of her family to survive the German army’s occupation of her home. Russian Captain Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov), along with his men, decide to hide and protect her, which is complicated by their desire for her, as well as their respect for her courage. Radio operator Sergey (Sergei Bondarchuk Jr.) develops a romantic crush on the young survivor, but he is kept away from her by his fellow soldiers.
Meanwhile, the German commander orders Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann) to once again acquire control of the building, where a Russian marksman, Chvanov (Dmitriy Lysenkov), is killing men from the top floor. Though outnumbered, the Russians fight off the attack by pretending they’re dead. But when the Germans storm the house, they still engage their enemies in fierce hand-to-hand combat. In addition to failing his mission, Kahn is also disciplined by his commander for having an affair with a local Russian woman, Masha (Yana Studilina). The soldiers all fight to not only protect themselves, but also defend their loved ones and the honor of their country.
Studilina generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Stalingrad’ over the phone from New York City’s Soho Grand Hotel. Among other things, the actress discussed how she was drawn to play the role of Masha in the action war film, as like with most Russian families, hers was affected by World War II, as two of her grandparents died during the international conflict; how film critics have questioned how a Russian woman could become romantically involved with a German soldier, but she thinks love can transcend political and language barriers; and how she enjoyed working with Bondarchuk, as he knows how to create an atmosphere on the set where each member of the cast and crew feels passionate about the work and overall process of shooting
ShockYa (SY): You star as one of the surviving Soviet civilians in the new action war film, ‘Stalingrad.’ What was it about the character and the script that convinced you to take on the role?
Yanina Studilina (YS): When I first received an invitation to audition for the movie, I was really excited about it. If you mention Stalingrad to any Russian, it means a lot to us. Almost each Russian family has been affected by the second world war.
My family was affected by the war; we lost two of my grandparents. One of my grandmothers was a nurse during World War II, and was in Berlin when the war ended. So it means a lot to be a part of this movie about Stalingrad, and is a great honor. It’s a great chance for a young actress. So it was very exciting to be offered this part.
SY: What was the casting and audition process like for your role of Masha? How did you become involved in the film?
YS: Before this movie, I was in a mini-series called ‘Belaya gvardiya (The White Guard),’ which is based on the book by Mikhail Bulgakov, one of the most famous Russian writers. In that mini-series, one of the actors I was performing with was Fedor Bondarchuk, the director of ‘Stalingrad.’
We hadn’t met on the set of the mini-series, because our characters never met. But when he saw the final production, he saw my performance. He invited me to audition for ‘Stalingrad.’
SY: Speaking of ‘Stalingrad’s director, Fedor Bondarchuk, what was your experience of working with him on the set as you were shooting the film?
YS: When I first arrived at the auditions, I was really worried, because I was going before this well-known Russian director and actor. I was nervous about working with a very famous director.
But when I arrived on the set, acting with him was like working with a family. He tries to take care of you. He’s so passionate about what he’s doing, and his work and movie. So being a famous director and actor, he understands how the actors work, and how to get what he needs from them in the scenes and the whole movie.
Fedor knows how to create an atmosphere on the set where each member of the crew, whether an actor, make-up artist or camera man, feels passionate about the work and overall process of shooting. We talked a lot not only about the role, but also about the second world war in general.
He also told us about his trip to Volgograd, which is the modern name for Stalingrad. He told us how he met with the war veterans. It really gave me a lot as an actress to perform with in the movie.
SY: What was your overall preparation process like for your role of Masha in Stalingrad? Did you do any of your own research?
YS: Yes, of course. We did study about the history of the world war in school. But I also did further research before making the movie. I called my grandma, and I asked her to tell me a lot about the war. She told me stories about how my grandfather died during the war.
She also told me, which really helped me, how even now, whenever she hears the German language, she gets scared. She knows the war is finished, but she was very small at that time, so it’s still deep in her memory that even now she’s scared.
Kahn spoke German with Masha in their first scene together, but she didn’t understand the language, and neither do I. This language scares Masha, because it’s an enemy language. But I think it was a big challenge for Masha, because she could see a suffering person in the enemy, and she was able to open up to him. From that moment, love became the only thing she had.
A lot of film critics have questioned the fact of how a Russian woman could become romantically involved with a German soldier. But I personally think that love can transcend political, religious and language barriers. For Masha, love was the cocoon that kept the horrors of war away. I think ‘Stalingrad’ is an anti-war film that displays the horrific nature of any war in the war.
SY: Speaking of the fact that Kahn falls in love with Masha, why do feel it was important to showcase that people from both sides could fall in love, despite their countries’ opposing views?
YS: I think it’s a really tragic story of these human beings. According to the war, because of their political associations, their relationship is impossible. But between this man and woman, love is beyond politics, war and language. I think when we truly fall in love with a person, we don’t think about their nationality, language or religion. But it was really hard for both of them.
I think every generation has their own version of the war in the movie, and ‘Stalingrad’ is our version. It focuses on topics that weren’t shown in other movies, like the relationship between a Russian woman and a German soldier. But it did happen during the war. The love story is based on real events, but isn’t based on one relationship.
The story also focuses on how the women wanted to survive. Masha was completely alone as Stalingrad was occupied by Germans. Her entire family was dead, which made her more susceptible to the enemy soldiers. So when Kahn tried to take care of her, she eventually opened up to him, because she has no choice.
She wants to leave the city and stay alive. She was young, so it was really hard. I wouldn’t say it was a normal situation; it was very difficult and tragic. So I can understand why she would start a relationship with him.
SY: What was the rehearsal period like with your co-stars before you began filming? What was the process of preparing for the action sequences?
YS: Oh, it was great. Thomas Kretschmann was very friendly and really open to everyone. It was a great experience for me to work with such a great actor. He did an amazing job, and worked very hard.
I think the best thing about the film was working with people who are passionate about the film; it was all about ‘Stalingrad.’ Fedor really loved the project, and wanted to make the best film possible. He’s a great director. He tried to create an atmosphere on the set where everyone felt relaxed, but still worked hard. I was really happy to be a part of this film.
SY: ‘Stalingrad’ is the highest grossing box-office Russian movie of all time. What does it mean to have earned that achievement? What types of reactions have you received from audiences who have already seen the film?
YS: I was so excited that we’re able to share this movie with an American audience. After I returned from the screening I attended, I heard so many great things about the movie. I am so thankful for those reactions, because I was so nervous about how they were going to react to the movie. But they really enjoyed it, and I hope the rest of the country enjoys it, too.
SY: What was your reaction when ‘Stalingrad’ was selected as the official Russian entry in the Best Foreign Film category of the 86th Academy Awards? Were you excited to hear the movie was chosen?
YS: Of course I was excited! I was so happy, I couldn’t believe it. When we started making the movie, I thought it would be good, but I didn’t think it would have such success. When it did, I was so happy for Fedor and the whole crew, and I was really proud of that.
SY: What message do you hope audiences can take away from the film?
YS: Well, ‘Stalingrad’ is a drama about love and honor, as well as the state of war. I think it’s an anti-war film that displays the horrific nature of any war. This is a story about people who are in very difficult situations during horrible times. I hope all audiences will enjoy the movie, and the story will be touching for them.
Written by: Karen Benardello