After Fedor Bondarchuk's 2005 Afghanistan war film The 9th Company marked his coming of age, Russian journalists gave the young director the cinematic equivalent of the Persil test. They knocked up a video putting scenes from the movie side by side with ones from his father Sergei's 1975 second world war classic They Fought for Their Country. "I have never tried to copy him," says Bondarchuk Jr, "but I was absolutely shocked because they were 100% the same camera angles, the same type of editing, the same sequence of frames."
History seems to like doing that cyclical thing with the 46-year-old Russian director. His father was a Soviet-era cultural titan whose seven-hour adaptation of War and Peace was the world's most expensive film project in the 1960s. That grandiosity is in Fedor's genes is apparent from the stunning first sequence in his new war epic, Stalingrad, in which flame-wreathed Red Army troops storm through a bombed fuel dump on the banks of the Volga. And breaking records, too: $52m in domestic box office made it Bondarchuk's second time in 10 years, after 9th Company, at the top of the list of Russia's most successful films ever.
Stalingrad, the first non-American Imax film, is a mesmerising blitz – making up for what it lacks in emotional TNT by hanging shell-shocked in the husk of the city, numinously picking out each pulverised mote of dust and despairing grimace. It was Bondarchuk's attempt, he says, to invent a new cinematic language. But he had to tread carefully. "The second world war is a sacred theme to most Russians, and it is usually depicted very conservatively," he says. "We wanted to break down that attitude a bit, but it annoyed a lot of people. When they saw the trailer with Columbia Pictures, an American logo, at the start of it, cut to a popular English-language song, What a Wonderful World, just imagine what kind of comments we got."
Perhaps it was always going to be someone of Bondarchuk's pedigree who got to shepherd such a project – which, with the film also winning Russia's foreign-language Oscar nomination, is also charged with raising the profile of the country's beleaguered industry. Married to the editor of the Russian Hello! magazine, Bondarchuk is firmly part of the new Russian establishment; he has been a prominent Putin supporter and paid-up member of the United Russia party for many years, another reason his films draw so much fire. "People don't react to me as a director but to my political preferences," he says. "The state supports 90% of the film industry here, so often criticism of the films is mixed up with the general attitude toward those in power. This is OK, this is normal. But it doesn't relate to cinema in any possible way."
Bondarchuk, being in the crosshairs, seems up for a scrap. Refusing to dwell on the film's fans ("The haters are the more interesting bunch"), he has an air of casual iconoclasm. Chatting over Skype – a blue baseball cap over his shaved head, middle right-hand finger in a splint from a recent snowboarding accident – he is incisive and tart, frequently interrupting his own translator. After graduating from the VGIK film school in Moscow at the end of the 80s, he emerged as one of the new wave of music video and ad directors in modern, capitalist Russia – racy stuff from the son of the man Stalin once made a People's Artist of the USSR.
But the cinema industry, like most other things in 90s Russia, was in disarray. It took Bondarchuk until 2005 to make 9th Company, which was firmly drilled in line with the flashy MTV ethos. He had spent six years raising the film's meagre $6m budget – typical of the resourceful thrift at play in the new breed of Russian blockbuster. (Stalingrad makes $30m look like what, in Hollywood, would cost three or four times that.) He made the two-part sci-fi saga The Inhabited Island a few years later, but he has chalked up far more acting credits, also following in the footsteps of his mother Irina Skobtseva, who appeared in many of his father's works, and his older sister Natalya, who worked with Andrei Tarkovsky.
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