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Starring: Alexei Vertkov, Vitaly Kishchenko, Vitaly Dordzhiyev, Alexander Vakhov, Valery Grishko, Karl Kranzkowski
Despite the abundance of war films currently being shown in Russian cinemas, a new one by Karen Shakhnazarov cannot go unnoticed. Not only is this the first war film by a director best known to Russian audiences for Jazzman, Courier and other movies, but it is also quite an unusual storyline for a war movie. The uncluttered and purely fictional narration has metaphysical undertones that open up a completely new way of looking at war. Shakhnazarov said at the film’s premiere at the Oktyabr Cinema that he had dedicated the movie to his father, who joined the army when he was 18, as well as to the millions of his brothers in arms. The filmmaker believes every director of his generation must make a war movie. The Second World War, he claims, is the most important period in the history of mankind. As time passes, the immensity of what happened becomes more evident and, more importantly, a new perception of this period emerges.
Shakhnazarov discovered a new perception, which was the inspiration behind his decision to make a war film not long before his 60th birthday, in the novel Tankman by Ilya Boyashov, on which this film is based. The main character, tank driver Ivan Naidenov (played by Alexei Vertkov) receives severe burns in a battle with a German tank, the White Tiger. His 90% burns miraculously heal quickly and the hero, who has lost all memory of his past, develops new amazing abilities: he can now talk to tanks, which tell him their stories and ask him to help them fight the White Tiger. The White Tiger is a mystic incarnation of the German spirit, the Nazis’ conviction in the legitimacy of their actions. At the most unexpected moments, this non-existent tank appears on the battlefield only to strike down Soviet tanks with superhuman precision and, unharmed, to vanish again. Engineers designed an experimental model T-34-85 specifically to combat this tank. Delirious with a bitter craving for victory and praying to the “tank god,” Naidenov sets off in search of the monstrous ghost.
The director compares the struggle between man and machine with the confrontation between man and whale in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Like nature, war is beyond the comprehension of the human mind. Shakhnazarov skillfully succeeds in bringing this symbolic confrontation to the screen. There is an obvious reference to Nietzsche’s “blonde beast” when the White Tiger’s appearance on the screen is accompanied by the music of Richard Wagner. A misinterpretation of the philosophical genius’s idea lay at the core of the fascist ideology of racial superiority. Nietzsche’s “beast of prey” makes its appearance in the film as the ghost tank. It is this same “blond beast avidly prowling round in its lust for loot and victory. This hidden centre needs release from time to time: the beast must come out again, must go back into the wilderness.” In the final episode, the protagonist announces he will stay alert even though the war is over because the beast is still out there, laying low and waiting for its time to reveal itself.
Thus the director uses his character’s words to warn people to be aware of what is happening today. Naidenov’s final words reflect the deeply entrenched view of war as a permanent feature of human existence. Toward the end of the film, even the aging Hitler speaks about the barbarian cruelty of a European culture that is prone to destruction. The German tyrant’s monologue was written by the scriptwriters, Shakhnazarov, Boyashov and Borodyansky, and was based on recorded fragments of the Führer’s speeches. Hitler contemplates the inevitability of the war and argues that Germany only undertook something for which the rest of Europe had long been ready and was secretly longing. This new interpretation of a quiet and reasonable Hitler is in stark contrast to his characteristically impulsive tirades. His speech provides food for thought about the numerous contradictory interpretations of the war that appear nowadays – about how difficult it is to create an adequate understanding of the war in today’s reality.
The White Tiger is Shakhnazarov’s biggest production, but took only three and a half months to complete. Some of the war-time military equipment used in filming was taken from the Mosfilm studios. Amazingly for such old machines, ones which took part in the battles of 1944-45, they started at the first attempt. The stunts were performed by real tank drivers (no tank-operating stuntmen were available in Russia). Seven or eight cameras were used simultaneously to shoot tank battle scenes, along with numerous other devices and pyrotechnics. The actors for the main roles were selected with meticulous care, providing a truly period-appropriate appearance for the film. The actors’ expressive faces, technically challenging locations for shooting, and the lack of any obvious special effects creates very credible narration with which even the mystic storyline blends smoothly.
This was evidently the intended effect. A seemingly simple story has the ability to captivate, even without the romantic storylines typically deemed a must for mainstream cinema. The creators’ masterful ability to inject a beautiful story with a strong visually suggestive formula deserves recognition. It evokes a positive response from the cinema audience, which witnesses an exciting and comprehensible story. Apart from anything else, it definitely offers its own unique style.
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