Thereís not much to complain about regarding terrific, horrifying, insightful exploration of the hell of war. But let me get one thing off my chest. Nope, itís not that itís in Russian and German, and that I had to read it; itís not the two-plus-hour length; and itís not that itís in 3-D (the 3-D experience here is a very positive one, with lots of depth). Itís the filmís use of bookends, of starting then ending with the same contemporary sequence, then flashing back for two hours to a story set in 1942. Itís a tool that has worked before but comes across here as a forced, artsy gimmick.

But those two hours are the stuff of greatness. Not, however, the greatness that history buffs or fans of spectacular visual epics might be expecting. Iíve got to go on the record here, noting that the strange trailer for the film is very misleading. It shows planes and tanks and mortars and explosions and hordes of soldiers (and a woman in a bathtub), all of which are indeed in the film, but only in small measure.

Hereís the kicker. The battle of Stalingrad, according to the trailer, ďthe greatest battle in history,Ē isnít even in the film. The story here is about what happened in Stalingrad after the grueling battle between the Russians and the Germans reduced the place to rubble, leaving soot and ash to float through the air, and forcing surviving citizens to eke out an existence in bombed-out buildings and through a terrible food shortage.

Yet even that isnít what the film is about. Itís an interior look at the effects of war. And itís actually told on a very small scale. Itís a character study that gets into the minds of a group of Russian soldiers, led by Captain Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov), who are among the military men who have come to take back the city from the marauding Nazis. Itís equally a story of a larger group of Germans, ostensibly led by Captain Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann), a good leader who must answer to a petty and tyrannical superior officer.

The two sides are holed up in separate buildings that are within sight of each other, and one of the filmís major plotlines hangs on the frustrating inability of the Russians to do anything about the Germans, and vice versa. Both leaders are honorable men, doing what they believe needs to be done, and both are conflicted about some of what they must do. But the circumstances within each building couldnít be any more different. Thereís a strong camaraderie among the Russians, an idea thatís never even thought of in the stern German camp.

To humanize the story, thereís also the double plotline of two Russian women Ė one a lone survivor who has lost her family but kind of finds a new one among the Russian soldiers, and one whoís a prostitute being used and abused (and possibly loved) by Captain Kahn. Do not fear Ė these two characters do not get in the way of the film; their stories and their involvement with the soldiers add a great deal of emotional texture.

Yet this remains a rugged and often brutal war film, filled with images you wonít soon forget. One that sticks with me is an awful vision of soldiers with their clothing on fire and their guns blazing, who are running toward, screaming at, and attacking their enemies. But another, on the opposite end of the spectrum, involves an impromptu birthday party that exudes tenderness, warmth, and a bit of humor.

In the scheme of things, this really is a small movie. But it does also work, in many ways, as an epic.

Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.

Written by Sergey Snezhkin and Ilya Tilkin; directed by Fedor Bondarchuk
With Thomas Kretschmann, Pyotr Fyodorov, Mariya Smolnikova, Yanina Studilina
Rated R