Film Review: White Tiger – Fascist Phantom Tank Versus Red Army Good Guys

I recently watched an episode of Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of the United States Showtime documentary series, which made a compelling case that the Red Amy won the war in Europe during WWII.  I also saw Russian director Sergei Loznitsa’s feature In The Fog in November at the AFI Fest, wherein Soviet partisans battle Nazis in Belarus.  So I was intrigued to see another Russian fiction film set during the Second World War and Karen Shakhnazarov’s White Tiger is as sharply exciting as In The Fog was foggily slow paced.

White Tiger is about tank warfare during WWII, but this is no Battle of the Bulge straightforward type of tale.  As the Red Army inexorably marches across the Eastern Front towards Berlin, the USSR soldiers are stymied by the appearance on the battlefield by a sort of super tank, the eponymous White Tiger.  Although the combat sequences are tautly directed and exhilarating to watch, Shakhnazarov does something off-kilter that makes this foreign film with subtitles extremely exceptional.  The director/co-writer bends and blends genres, adding a supernatural element to what is otherwise a realistic war movie.  This creative concoction not only captivates audiences but confounds the high ranking Soviet characters, since otherworldliness is contrary to these atheists’ Marxist beliefs.

So White Tiger works at several levels: As a war movie, history lesson painted with lightning, ghost story and also a film with a philosophical subtext.  The soundtrack is thunderous (you’ll see what I mean) and Wagnerian, as this very Russian picture uses a score by the most Germanic of composers.  Often thrilling, White Tiger is at all times absorbing, well-direct and stirringly acted.

Alexey Vertikov is haunting in an understated performance as a Clint Eastwood-like tank commander with no name who seems to rise, zombie-like, from the dead to do battle with the Nazi hyper-tank.  His spectral character comes to be called Naydyonov and the depiction by Vertikov may give you vertigo.  Vitaly Kishchenko likewise delivers a stellar performance as Fedotov, the hardened officer who puts aside official Communist dogma to confront and embrace Naydyonov’s extraordinarily uncanny utterances, which strike the doctrinaire Marxists as mumbo jumbo.  As the real life Marshal Gerogy Zhukov, Valery Grishko is properly skeptical of the paranormal elements.  Vitaly Dordzhiev provides some comic relief as Berdyev, one of the “Dirty Dozen” elite tank crew members assembled to counter the White Tiger and he reminds us that the Red Army was multi-culti and included Asian soldiers.  The Nazis are all played by German actors, with Karl Kranzkowski chilling in a cameo as Hitler, with an Inglourious Basterds type of historical twist, as well as a meditation on the nature of evil.

Unfortunately, some in-the-know distributor hasn’t picked White Tiger up for theatrical release yet.  So don’t let the gods of the tanks prevent you from seeing Russia’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the Palm Springs Film Festival, which — like many important filmfests — performs a valuable function as gateway and launching pad for offbeat cinema.  As the head of the venerable Russian studio Mosfilm Shakhnazarov is a Moscow movie mogul and his White Tiger proves that from Sergei Eisenstein up to the 21st century, those “Ruskies” still know how to pack a motion picture punch.

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