FILM / Location: Taking Stalingrad: The battle of Stalingrad has been refought in Prague by a German film crew and 12,000 extras. Joanna Berry reports

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The Independent Culture
A group of Italians wait in one corner of a disused factory site, ready to pounce. They are watching a collection of Nazi soldiers who huddle around burning oil drums in an effort to keep warm as the temperature drops to -30C. Bodies and torn limbs covered in blood lie in the dirt. Then, all of a sudden the Italians move in and the battle begins. But this is not a battle of forty years ago on Italian or German soil. Instead, we are in Prague, on the set of a film called Stalingrad. The blood on the ground is a mixture of ketchup and flour (synthetic blood was found to harden in the extreme weather) and the Italians in question are a team of journalists intent on barging past the huddled German and Czech actors as they seek out the director of Stalingrad, Joseph Vilsmaier.

'Few films have been made about Stalingrad, yet it was the bloodiest battle in war history,' says Vilsmaier, who, very sensibly, is virtually invisible under a heavy hooded jacket and scarf. 'It was an important battle, the turning point of World War II. The Germans thought they would cut through Russia like a knife through butter and move on into India. Unfortunately for them, after a three-month siege of the town, Stalingrad was the setting for the Germans' first big defeat of the war.

Stalingrad, Vilsmaier's epic, German-language movie about that battle, centres around four soldiers - played by four young actors who have the makings of a German brat pack - from the day in November 1942 when they arrive in the Russian town, believing they will soon defeat the Russian soldiers and civilians to the time they realise their defeat is imminent a few months later. Hence lots of battle scenes, weapons, blood and explosions are planned in one of the most expensive German productions ever. An epic to be sure, and one that Vilsmaier wants to have finished and ready to be released in early 1993 to tie in with the 50th anniversary of the Sixth German army's defeat.

'The cast I have put together includes 12,000 extras from Czechoslovakia and Germany, playing Russian and German soldiers,' states Vilsmaier. 'The largest amount of extras we used at one time was a scene when the German soldiers arrive at Stalingrad station - for that we needed 1,500 extras. We used a lot of Czech extras because there are Czechs who look like Germans, and there are Czechs who look like Russians]' he laughs.

A hospital scene is scheduled to be shot at the factory, which has a cellar that has been converted to look like an underground hospital. A badly wounded German soldier is taken there by Hans (Thomas Kretschmann), Fritz (Dominique Horwitz) and Gege (Sebastan Rudolph) to try to get him medical help, even if it means holding a Russian doctor at gunpoint.

The hospital has to be filled with wounded and dying soldiers, so the make-up team, based at a studio a few minutes away in the centre of Prague, have been working overtime since 4am. At the studio, a narrow corridor is crammed full of extras waiting to be given gory wounds made out of red-stained foam, while two TV crews from Germany and Italy, both filming documentaries about the making of the film, are battling it out to see who gets into the make-up room first. The German TV crew has won the first round, having already stationed themselves in the room, determined to interview everything that moves, including a bemused make-up artist who seems to be covered from head to toe in tomato ketchup.

'Out] Out] Out] We need space]' screams the make-up lady a few minutes later, no longer bemused after the German cameraman has knocked over one of her pots of ketchup. Unfortunately, as the Germans shuffle out, the Italian TV crew - interviewer, cameraman and soundman - decide to move in, blocking the entrance so that the next 'victim' cannot get into his chair to have a particularly gruesome bullet wound applied to his head. As the queue lengthens behind, the Italian interviewer storms out: 'I can't hear what they are saying. There's too much noise. I'm not happy.'

Indeed. As assorted journalists make their way back down the corridor, past pieces of red and flesh-coloured foam and latex that seem to have fallen off some of the cast, the remaining extras seem somewhat relieved.

'Obviously, some of the wounds are too terrible to recreate with just foam and make-up,' observes Jurgen Boscher, Vilsmaier's co-writer, co-producer and the crew's translator - one of the few people on set who can speak English, German and Czech. 'That is why we have some extras from a local veterans' hospital outside Prague, men who have lost arms and legs, so it all looks more real. We're not trying to do a documentary, though, but we want to be as accurate as possible. It's a story about one of the bloodiest battles where 700,000 Russians, 400,000 Germans, 100,000 Italians and 150,000 Hungarians died. More people died takng one building in Stalingrad than during the occupation of Paris.'

At the factory site, people are milling around waiting for filming to begin. Already on set are the cast, crew, director Vilsmaier and Hans Schoenbeck, the film's adviser, who was one of the few survivors of the real Stalingrad.

'My biggest surprise when I arrived in Prague for the first time,' he reports, 'when I saw the old disused buildings, the old steel factories which look like a real tractor factory that was in Stalingrad and was destroyed by weapons, was it all looked so real - but only I would know that, or any other survivors,' he smiles. 'As far as I know I am the only one from my unit.'

Schoenbeck moves about the set, nodding and looking slightly at odds with the whole proceedings, as various SS uniform-wearing extras try to keep warm as the temperature drops even further below freezing. 'I cannot agree to everything I see here,' he muses, 'because I did not see everything, but I know that the research for this film was made very perfect. They are using real weapons and uniforms, and even 13 tanks which all work. I find it quite horrible sometimes when I see the tanks coming towards me.'

The scene being shot is taking a long time to set up - the extras are lying on their hospital beds while Vilsmaier walks up and down the length of the set, shouting directions in German, while his wife Dana repeats them in Czech. Buscher, trying to keep the Italian TV crew from getting under everyone's toes, is beginning to look frazzled, juggling TV crews and journalists in a small space strewn with supposedly dead and dying soldiers.

'Joseph Vilsmaier is my friend, which makes this job easier,' he muses. 'Joseph began as a cameraman and was very successful, and since he has been directing he still likes to continue being behind the camera. Unfortunately, he had a car accident in Prague before Christmas, and his back was damaged, so now he finds it very difficult operating the camera himself.'

Vilsmaier's accident caused delays to the shooting schedule, which presented considerable problems because the film was to be shot in chronological order.

'One of the reasons,' explains Vilsmaier, 'that we wanted to film in chronological order was because the four main actors have to lose weight during the course of the movie, so they have been eating less and less as the filming has progressed, so by the time we film the final scenes they will look terrible]' Unfortunately, some key scenes that should have already been shot have not, as Vilsmaier and his crew need snow for the scenes, and the Czechoslovakian winter has yet to provide them with some.

Actor Dominique Horowitz explains how the cast prepared for the roles. 'All we did,' he states, looking decidedly gaunt after depriving himself of sleep the night before so he can look authentically haggard for today's scene, 'was read a lot of letters from soldiers. One had a young soldier saying 'Now I believe in Hitler and all he says, but all the people around me say we will lose. I cannot stand this feeling, so I have to believe in Hitler and what he says - because if I don't there is going to be no more meaning to the world. To believe him is the only way to survive'.'

'That is the important thing about this movie,' Thomas Kretschmann chips in. 'This film tries to show how the young people feel coming into this battle, there is no glorification of tough German so]diers. They all thought they could win Stalingrad, believing that the world belonged to the Germans - the Nazis. It took the soldiers until January when there was no food for them to think about their situation. They all believed Hitler would save them and send in another army, but he didn't'

However, when it comes to any feelings about playing a Nazi, Kretschmann simply replies: 'I know nothing about Nazis, apart from what I have seen in movies. This is about ordinary people at war, who are cowards, who don't want to fight, but will do what they have to just to stay alive.'

By now, the scene has been set up and rehearsals are about to begin. The 'hospital' room is strewn with actors in various degrees of decay, while a make-up woman is standing by the operating table, liberally splashing it with fake blood. Another helper is wandering around the bodies touching up uniforms and faces with ketchup and soot, while Jurgen is explaining to the persistent Italian crew that no, they cannot interview the director at this precise moment - he is understandably rather busy.

When Vilsmaier is satisfied with the set-up the assembled journalists are ushered out to what, we are promised, is a warm room. Images of comfortable sofas and central heating are conjured up, but as we walk across the set and up the stairs of another derelict building, it is plainly obvious this is not what we will get. Instead, the room is heated by a flame fire and furnished with three rickety chairs and an old table.

Vilsmaier's wife, Dara Vavrova, joins us and explains how Prague, and not Stalingrad itself, was chosen as a location for the movie.

'We looked for a centre of locations in different countries,' offers Vavrova. 'We went to Stalingrad and looked at the situation, but it was impossible to shoot there because everything looks differernt, it's all been rebuilt since the war. We couldn't shoot in the Soviet Union at that time because there was a very complicated situation there and nobody knew until now what is going on there and how the situation would change. Prague is Joseph's favourite place, and we found locations here - ruins, an old factory, even a former military base which the Soviet army used as a training ground.'

Jochen Nickel, who plays one of the German soldiers, comes in, in full Nazi uniform, with a water canister and a flame-thrower attached to his back, and a rifle under his arm. Absentmindedly waving his weapon around, he explains: '. . .it works, it really works properly. It's the real thing]'

'It's not as hard work as it looks today,' he promises. 'During the first weeks we filmed some big battles, three weeks with explosions, fire, mud, water, more explosions, explosions, explosions] We didn't have to act fear, we already felt it - it may not be real bullets, but they are very loud so after those three weeks I was really depressed, but now the battles are done so we get to do some real acting.'

At 7pm - six hours on - the initial scene has been completed. The entire ensemble - including the assembled journalists - are suffering from frozen feet, frozen faces, hunger and fatigue. Amid the general chaos, Vilsmaier manages to spend a few moments talking about his movie and its beginnings.

'There's a young German author, Kristof Fromm, who was interested in Stalingrad and he wrote this script. I read it and worked on it for a long time making it less a documentary and more a movie with feelings.'

The cast and crew have gone to great pains to confirm that the film will portray Nazi soldiers as they really were.

Vilsmaier continues: 'We show the shooting of Soviet civilians, for example. Among them is a boy of 13 years, and there are some people in Germany who know that the soldiers couldn't do something like that, but the story does reflect the truth, that did happen. We show the chaos in the December when the cold came and no supplies were coming in to Stalingrad. There were 300,000 German soldiers there and by January the bread ration was 100 grammes a day and there was an order from army headquarters that wounded and sick people should no longer be fed. They had no medical supplies so they took wounded people and left them out in the cold just to let them freeze to death because they could not help them. We show all of this, and some people are not going to like it.'

After more hours of shouting with the temperature below -8C, the cast and crew adjourn for the night, with an actors' party at the hotel going on until the early hours of the morning. They are determined to make it an all-nighter, so they look suitably dishevelled and war-weary for the next day's shoot. When the hotel bar closes, the lead actors decide to go from room to room, raiding each mini-bar for miniature bottles of wine, whisky, and - of course - vodka.

'If you ask the actors what preparation they are doing for Stalingrad,' says Jurgen the next morning, 'they say 'to drink much and eat nothing'. If you ask them what Joseph Vilsmaier told them to do, they say 'to drink much and eat nothing', so at least they are doing what they are told]'

(Photograph omitted)