The Curmudgeon


Monday, January 09, 2017

White Tiger

Karyen Shakhnazarov 2012

At the height of the Great Patriotic War, a gutted Soviet tank is discovered with its driver burned up and fused to the steering wheel. In spite of injuries that would normally be fatal, the man is still alive, and over the next few weeks makes a seemingly miraculous recovery, although he cannot remember his own identity and is renamed Ivan Ivanovich Naidyonov (Ivan the Found) by his comrades. Quiet and unflappably calm, Naidyonov (Alexei Vertkov) retains all his tank-driver's skills and seems to have developed a psychic bond with the machinery; so when ominous rumours begin to circulate about a German Tiger tank with apparently supernatural capabilities, he is naturally assigned to destroy it, under the watchful eye of counter-intelligence officer Fedotov (Vitaliy Kishchenko).

Splendidly shot amid white-misted Russian forests, White Tiger is for most of its length more of a war film than a ghost story, before mutating into something more peculiar than either. Still, the supernatural element is nicely integrated thanks to the atmospheric visuals and some unpretentious but telling touches, as when Fedotov gets his first sight of the White Tiger and tries to take its picture. The battle scenes - two duels and a spectacularly disastrous mass assault - are in deadly earnest, the vulnerability of Naidyonov and his all-too-human crewmen never in doubt; and although Naidyonov develops a personal mythology of a T-34-riding "tank god" who speaks in thunder and lightning, no deus ex machina descends to destroy the White Tiger.

It is after the second duel, in which the monster is defeated but not finished off, that the film becomes truly unexpected. Having argued with his superior over whether something supernatural really is taking place, Fedotov is given a few days' leave and informed that the fall of Berlin is imminent. Rather than staging a final showdown amid the Reich's Götterdämmmerung, as almost any other film-maker would feel morally obliged to do, Shakhnazarov takes the tanks off-screen entirely. Instead we are shown, at some length, the ceremony around the signing of the surrender documents by Field Marshal Keitel (a superbly prissy Christian Redl), following which the defeated Nazi leaders are treated to a luxurious meal while they chat quietly among themselves and don't mention the war.

A lingering scene shows the results of their handiwork: a seemingly endless line of prisoners marches through the ruins of Berlin, witnessed by tank crews and stunned civilians, and also by Fedotov who drives grimly out of the city to find Naidyonov still ready for battle. The White Tiger has retreated for now, but in fifty or a hundred years, or perhaps seventy-two, it will be back.

The epilogue, set amid decadent splendour in an unknown place, shows only a man seated comfortably by a fire and talking to a close colleague or mentor. The film's main musical score is derived from Wagner's Tannhäuser, and the speaker is a demonic artist engaged, as he believes, in a deadly but redemptive struggle. A grim little masterpiece of restrained horror and cinematic chutzpah, this scene drives White Tiger across the borders of the interestingly odd, and a small but significant distance into the realm of demented genius.


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