German guilt laid bare on the big screen: Steve Crawshaw in Bonn watches a film which breaks the last taboo - the legacy of Nazism

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WE SEE the raw, bloody meat of the dead and wounded; the deadly grey figures who sit freezing slowly to death, beside their comrades - whitened scarecrows who have already become lumps of ice; and the huge bonfires in the snow, kept blazing by the cartloads of corpses which continue to arrive.

The cinema is packed, mostly with young people, for this box-office success. But this is not a war movie for those who are thrilled by the bang-flash-bang of celluloid wars. It is two and a half hours of almost undiluted horror - chaos, hunger, cold, fear and death - on the German side of the lines.

This, as the opening titles of Stalingrad note, was the most hideous battle of the Second World War. Death, for those at Stalingrad, seemed a near-certainty - if not today, then soon. And, when the soldiers tried to rebel, always the same refrain: orders are orders, to be obeyed.

It was 50 years ago today that General Friedrich Paulus surrendered, with all his forces, to the Russians who had trapped them more than two months earlier. Some Germans argue there are still important lessons to learn. Stalingrad has been one of the most talked-about films in recent weeks, and is playing to full houses across the country.

For German audiences, the message is clear. As one man commented, after seeing the film: 'Once is enough.' Another said: 'The lesson is the senselessness of it all. When one sees the Rechtsradikalen (the extreme right) it's relevant for today.'

The human treatment of Stalingrad can be seen as breaking the last taboo. After 1945, Nazism was regarded as a subject best ignored. It was 20 years before Germany began to come to terms with its hideous past. Willy Brandt's noble gesture in 1969, when he knelt in homage at the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, was famous precisely because Germans had failed, until then, to acknowledge the enormity of their legacy.

Then, through the 1970s and 1980s - as the post-war generation, which carried no personal responsibility, moved into the centre of public life - Nazi crimes were discussed and analysed in ever greater detail. The nature of German guilt was endlessly explored. The Holocaust became a constant theme, and Germans began to address and analyse their collective guilt.

Now, with Stalingrad, the question of Germans' own suffering is addressed - for the first time with such force. As one viewer noted: 'The facts were well known. But the subject was never worked through. This was a trauma for us.'

The evil of Nazism is obvious within the film. So, too, is the casual brutality of the German forces in Russia. But the true theme is the fate of ordinary soldiers. For this is a buddy-movie, set amid visions of hell. A quarter of a million Germans were trapped in Stalingrad. Hitler refused to allow them to surrender, and Nazi propaganda continued to prophesy imminent victory, even as the nightmare deepened. On the German side alone, at least 150,000 died (the figures remain unclear, even now).

This film would probably not gain an enthusiastic reception in Russia: Russians, who suffered as much or more, appear only in walk-on parts, as frightened and starving civilians, or as mirror images of the German soldiers - killing to stay alive. The only Russian-speaking character in the film turns out to be half-German. With enormous bitterness, she tells her captors: 'I loved your language. I'll never forgive myself for that.'

But Stalingrad - whose director, Joseph Vilsmaier, made an earlier film about the Warsaw Ghetto - is above all intended for a German audience. (Russia is still coming to terms with its own taboos: Russian historians recently revealed that more than 13,000 people were executed for 'cowardice' during the defence of the city. The Soviet Union had always demanded that its tales of heroism should be unblemished.)

Even now, the theme of Stalingrad is, in some respects, sensitive in Germany. Last week, a group of neo-Nazis were arrested when they gathered to lay wreaths in commemoration of the battles, at a soldiers' cemetery near Potsdam. The incident was a reminder of how delicate the line remains, between human and political sympathy. The film pays tribute to ordinary Germans who died, as victims of political madness. The wreath-layers, by contrast, paid tribute to the madness itself, and suggested that their compatriots died in an honourable cause. The two approaches are diametrically opposed, but easily entangled.