White Tiger (2012)

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White Tiger

White Tiger: Directed by Karen Shakhnazarov. With Aleksey Vertkov, Vitaliy Kishchenko

Spoiler Alert – if you haven’t seen the film and plan on doing so, watch it first then read this.

This is a very odd Russian symbolist fantasy set during the Second World War, and based very loosely on Moby Dick. After a battle on the Eastern Front a tank driver is found with 90% burns over his body, but miraculously he heals completely. He tells of a white German Tiger tank that appears out of nowhere, is seemingly invincible, and disappears just as mysteriously. Other people have heard of the myth, including captured German officers who are clearly just as fearful of the strange war machine, though they claim it is the ‘triumph of German genius’. The Russians build their own super tank and assemble a crew, including the driver who’s been given the name Naidyonov (‘found’). He now claims that tanks talk to him, warning of the approach of the ghostly enemy. It’s also clear that there now exists a weird symbiotic relationship between the two, which allows him to sense when it is lurking out in the dark forests of the Eastern Front. The new prototype trundles off in pursuit of its quarry, ready for the final showdown, at which point the needle on the Existential Enigmaticometer goes off the scale.

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Tank driver Naidyonov watching out for his nemesis

On the surface White Tiger seems to be a straight forward fantasy/horror war film. There’ve been a few in the past, usually on the lines of Nazi Occult experiments Awaken Age-old Evil, The Keep (1984) and the more recent Outpost (2008) being two examples. As a genre it hasn’t really gained much traction. After Saving Private Ryan (1998) news-reel style realism of the real brutalities of war make the addition of fantasy or horror a bit of trite, pointless exercise. It’s clear from the mixed reception White Tiger has received that most people find it confusing. It looks like a standard war film – an accurate portrayal of tank warfare from the Russian side filmed in washed out muddy tones and pulling no punches in its depiction of the merciless slog of combat – but it’s clearly not. Neither is it a horror film – ghostly Nazi tank powered by ancient evil hunted down by Soviet hero blessed with Wolverine powers of regeneration. Halfway in and you realise you’re watching a far subtler symbolist study of obsession and the powerlessness of the individual in the face of the remorseless march of brutal history.

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The White Tiger itself

The film it’s closest to in my mind is Tarkovsky’s utterly brilliant (and infinitely better than the George Clooney version) Solaris (1972), in which a group of scientists orbit a vast sentient planet-sized ocean. It’s clearly trying to communicate, but is fundamentally incomprehensible. There’s a Russian phrase, ‘kitchen intellectuals’, which refers to the feeling of powerlessness felt by the intelligentsia during the Soviet era. They understand the world around them, and they want to engage with it and play a meaningful role, but in the society of the time they are useless.  So they gather in the kitchen at parties and talk about life, the universe and everything. In Solaris the scientists are kitchen intellectuals hovering above this massive, powerful force they have no control over. In White Tiger, the ghostly German tank is a similar unstoppable power. Even after the Germans have surrendered Naidyonov still stands at the edge of the forest waiting for the White Tiger, “He’s waiting, he is, he’ll wait twenty years, fifty, maybe a hundred.” All the characters in the film, Soviet, German, soldiers and generals hover around the edges of this incomprehensible mystery – looking generally confused. The film ends with a bizarre scene in which Hitler himself gives a grotesquely self-serving speech of justification before a man sitting in shadow (the devil perhaps?), finishing by claiming that war is the natural human state (‘weren’t me, Officer, it was the Human Condition what done it’). It’s the vision of history with which Tolstoy ended War and Peace – things happen, populations rise and fall, wars come and go, and no-one has a clue why, or how to change it.

So, if you like thoughtful cinema and prefer to watch Russian films wearing a black turtle-neck with your chin on your fist then I hugely recommend White Tiger – it’ll certainly give you plenty to talk about in the kitchen at parties. If you just want a knockabout war film, or a bit of Occult Nazi Horror then I’d look elsewhere.

5 Comments

  1. I’ve heard about this film but not paid much attention, not being a great cinephreak. Sounds interesting, but if it ends in a lot of head scratching, it’s not one for me. Liked Moby Dick though.

  2. Jesse says:

    Surprisingly well done, I recommend it. The Russians generally turn out tripe, but this is not half bad.

  3. Cinadon says:

    Congratulations, you’ve totally failed to see that the white tank is a metaphor for fascism.

  4. T says:

    With the entire Wehrmacht available to the plot, was a metaphor for Fascism required?

  5. Unobtrusive Criticism says:

    Of course the white tiger tank was a metaphor, but for so much more. It’s the God of War incarnate, the immortal and endless cycle of violence and subjugation that humans have slid into committing on each other for centuries, and which we as a species, may never fully disentangle ourselves from, no matter how peace loving we want ourselves and the world to be. This violence and subjugation knows no uniform, country or political ideology. It just is and follows the laws of physics, ie every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Yet I found some fascinating, and equally oddball scenes that speak to the Russian view of history (the opening credits reveal that White Tiger was sponsored financially by the Russian government state), so the obligatory patriotic themes of We Beat the Nazis All By Ourselves resonates throughout. Unsure, though of why the filmakers chose to devote such an overly extended sequence of a reenactment of German General Jodl and other german staff unconditional surrender to the Russians. The scene (which actually took place in Rheims, France, but you would think it took place in Moscow, based on the number of Russians running this event in the film) threatens to take all the air right out of the film, minimizes the participation of the other Allies, but does throw a bone to the West by showing one single US General officer relegated to a back row seat. Russia is getting it’s revenge, and boy howdy are they ever in charge of the proceedings. Perhaps the White Tiger is about to have a set of new ghostly crewmen, but this time wearing new Soviet Bloc uniforms and a hammer and sickle painted on the side of it’s armor? The tank-whispering engineer protagonist seems to suggest exactly that to his Major, that it is War itself that must be sought out and destroyed, even though that goal can only be accomplished by War’s own violent means and methods.
    Speaking of air being sucked out of the room, The other inexplicable scene is of Jodl and his staff being served a three course dinner by their generous and benevolent Soviet Victor’s right after signing their surrender terms. For several minutes we’re treated to awkward silences, stilted conversation about German restaurants and how crappy the wine is, how good the roast beef is, frozen strawberries and long drags on cigarettes. Tarantino, this is not.
    Finally at the end, is the bizarre set piece and aforementioned self serving rationalizing speech by Der Fuehrer, presumably in some subterranean Divine Comedy circle of hell as what appears to be an interview with the Devil himself. Or is he speaking with God and trying save his own ass before his final judgement? Could be both, could be neither, the interviewer looks like some kind of shadowy classical music conductor or college professor, or maybe it’s the representative of the audience, of you and I trying to grasp how all of this happened in the first place and futilely hoping Hitler has some kind of rational explanation as some kind of fantasy in which we actually capture him alive in 1945. Either way, the above scenes are shoe-horned into the narrative by the filmmaker, but it’s not clear to what intent.
    Aside from these gripes, I actually enjoyed a well detailed film that had some real tension.

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