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DIRECTED BY: Karen Shakhnazarov
FEATURING: Aleksey Vertkov, Vitaliy Kishchenko, Valeriy Grishko
PLOT: In the closing months of World War II, the Soviet army is confronted by a fearsome opponent in the form of a single, unnaturally deadly tank; the best hope for victory lies with the only man to survive an attack by the armored vehicle, a soldier with retrograde amnesia who survived extensive burns and now possesses an uncanny ability to out-think the machine.
COMMENTS: They call him “Ivan Ivanovich Naydenov.” The last word literally means “found,” and the name is the Russian equivalent of “John Doe.” He is discovered in the charred remains of a wrecked tank, covered with burns over nearly his entire body. He is nearly given up for dead, but he recovers with astonishing speed. How he could be alive is a terrific mystery, but there’s a war on, with no time for such diversions. He remembers nothing before being found except for the ability to drive a tank, so they call him “Ivan Ivanovich Naydenov” and do the only thing they can do: put him in uniform and throw him back into the battle against the Nazis.
But World War II is really beside the point, because the real battle is a timeless struggle between two archetypal foes: the soulless killing machine and the pure knight sent to vanquish it. Naydenov and the White Tiger are purposely stripped of identity; the soldier has no past while the tank has no crew. We see the tank wipe out an entire squadron of Soviet vehicles, and it becomes clear why the Russians and Germans alike are terrified of the mechanized death-dealer. Only Naydenov is undeterred; he is able to outwit the tank as no one else can, but they are too perfectly matched for either to triumph.
Presenting the White Tiger as a legitimate threat is a significant task. Other films have tried to depict the malign power of inanimate vehicles, some more successfully than others. The filmmakers use a crafty blend of camera framing, sound design (including a wonderfully unnatural thwoomping sound for the beast’s cannon), and practical effects to give the White Tiger its power. Meanwhile, the character of Naydenov (an evangelically determined Vertkov) has been stripped down to the most basic elements needed to defeat a tank. He has an innate sense of tactics, a prognosticator’s insight into the tank’s next moves, and a zealot’s indefatigable passion for the chase. When Naydenov tells his superior officer that he will pursue his adversary forever, it seems like that’s exactly how long it will take.
For much of the film’s running time, the movie is taken up with two questions: How will our heroes vanquish this opponent, and what is the mystery behind the two combatants’ hidden identities? Neither of these questions will be addressed in the slightest. Instead, White Tiger takes a truly strange turn in its final act, when it leaves the battlefield to depict Germany’s surrender to the Soviet Union (and the other Allied powers, although they barely figure here). This sets up what appears to be the film’s true thesis statement: that the battle between good and evil cannot be confined to nationalities, and that evil only rises up when the will of the masses summons it. A reasonable sentiment, except that it is delivered by, of all people, Adolf Hitler, who suddenly comes to us from beyond the grave to explain to a faceless companion that the Nazis only waged their campaign of death against the Jews because the rest of Europe secretly wanted it but lacked his fortitude, and that the impulse will surely rise again. Not my fault, he insists. The rest of Europe made me do it.
What does this unsettling scene mean? Unfortunately, this question has a ready and alarming answer, and it lies in the fact that this Hitler’s threat and the implicit defense for warfare sounds strikingly similar to the language Russia used to justify its invasion of Ukraine a decade after the film’s release. This can no doubt be laid at the feet of Shakhnazarov, the movie’s director and an extremely vocal supporter of Vladimir Putin. As noted in a recent discussion of the earlier Shakhnazarov film Zerograd, the filmmaker has publicly warned that is Russia were to lose in its current incursion, “it is the West that will have concentration camps ready, and will send all Russians there without mercy.” It’s an almost-exact recapitulation of the take on history that White Tiger’s Hitler provides, and reveals this otherwise intriguing ghost story to be odious propaganda. The weirdest thing about the movie turns out to be its interpretation of good and evil, and just who sits on which side.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a weird, wondrous tale of an eerie white fascist tank that appears, attacks and vanishes, leaving smoldering Russian tanks and cremated corpses in its wake… luckily, Shakhnazarov’s powerful image-making largely subsumes the film’s many peculiarities.”–Ronnie Scheib, Variety (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by Mike B. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)