Issue 66 (2019)

Aleksei Sidorov: T-34 (2019)

reviewed by Denise J. Youngblood © 2019

T34With the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II just a few months away and the Russian state’s ongoing support of “patriotic culture,” we can confidently predict a new wave of Russian war films. Aleksei Sidorov’s T-34, a bona-fide blockbuster earning over $32 million on an estimated $10 million budget, will be hard to beat, not because it brings anything new to a hoary genre, but precisely because it doesn’t. At last a Russian director has successfully adapted Hollywood style to Russian reality. T-34 is a nearly perfect “Hollywood” war film, even down to the “happy ending,” and Russian audiences responded to its comforting predictability by filling theaters.

The T-34 tank was an inspired choice for a subject. For once, a Russian war film director did not have to exaggerate Soviet superiority (or at least, not much). Although the Red Army’s woeful technical deficits compared to the Wehrmacht were painfully obvious in 1941, the Soviets had built the better tank for a prolonged war of attrition and kept improving it. By summer 1943, the T-34’s superiority over the German Panthers was clear, and the T-34 played a key role in the Soviet victory on the Eastern Front.

T34And what war film buff doesn’t love a tank movie? Of course, there have been a few serious tank films that tried to subvert genre conventions. Karen Shakhnazarov’s White Tiger (Belyi tigr, 2012) is a strange and wonderful example, and David Ayers’ Fury (2014) confounded American audiences by killing Brad Pitt, along with the rest of his crew, save one. It’s instructive that Fury was a failure at the American box office; unhappy endings, however realistic, ruin Hollywood’s carefully constructed illusions of a “good war.”

Sidorov, by contrast, vigorously embraces Hollywood tropes, making the kind of tank film beloved by “boys,” regardless of age or gender or nationality. T-34 is fast-paced, with pyrotechnics galore and lots of ear-shattering explosions and heart-pounding close calls. The climactic tank duel between the good-looking tankist Nikolai Ivushkin and his scar-faced nemesis Klaus Jaeger is perfectly silly, yet perfectly executed. After decades of watching too many war movies, I still found myself cheering aloud at Kolia’s victory—and audibly groaning when it seemed that he might throw it all away by trying to save Jaeger at the end. That’s entertainment.

T34The plot is improbable, but no more so than in most other films of its type. Here a callow Soviet tank commander loses most of his crew and the infantry unit supporting him on his very first day in battle, in a village near Moscow in late November 1941. The film picks up again in 1944, where we learn that our hero Kolia Ivushkin has somehow survived three years in various German POW camps, even though he has steadfastly refused to reveal his name and rank. Other than the long beard he now sports, Kolia appears to be as physically fit as he was at the beginning. The depiction of the POW camp is surprisingly restrained; there are a few hints of torture and executions of prisoners, but not of the deliberate starvation of Soviet POWs, who were treated quite differently from their Allied comrades. This is not to say that Sidorov’s Germans aren’t villainous, but like cartoon villains, they elicit knowing chuckles from the viewer, not revulsion. In a fanciful turn of events, the German tank commander (Jaeger) who defeated (and shot) Kolia in 1941 appears at the camp. Jaeger recognizes Kolia as his worthy adversary and recruits him to repair a newly captured T-34, with the help of three other Soviet tankisty, one of whom, in yet another improbable coincidence, turns out to be Kolia’s former driver, Stepan. Jaeger wants the T-34 crew to participate in a completely preposterous “training exercise” to demonstrate how the T-34 outmaneuvers the Panthers. Kolia, however, is no collaborator and has planned a dramatic escape, with the help of prisoner-translator Ania, who doubles as the obligatory love interest.

T34Sidorov made the very wise decision not to take this assignment too seriously. The dialogue is sparse, with few patriotic speeches, and the mood is occasionally lightened with amusing bits, like the brief scene of the tank “dancing” to the music of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The cast is competent and attractive, especially Aleksandr Petrov, whose low-key performance makes Kolia a believable hero. The production values are overall very good, particularly Mikhail Ivashin’s cinematography, which is first rate, and much better than is typical in a mainstream genre film like this one. The exception is the rather clumsy use of CGI.

I liked this movie, which may surprise those who have read my largely negative reviews of other Putin-era Russian war films. Sidorov has not set the bar very high, to be sure, but his T-34 is an honest, unpretentious action-adventure film that avoids two depressing trends in Russian cinema: saccharine sentimentality (e.g. Sergei Popov’s The Road to Berlin [Doroga na Berlin, 2015]), phony patriotism (e.g. Kim Druzhinin’s Tanks [Tanki, 2018]), and sleazy, exploitative violence (e.g. Konstantin Khabenskii’s Sobibor, 2018). Since the 1920s, Soviet and Russian directors have been trying to make the sure-fire Hollywood formula for middlebrow entertainment truly their own. Aleksei Sidorov has come close to achieving that in T-34.

Denise J. Youngblood
University of Vermont

Comment on this article on Facebook

T-34, Russia, 2019
Color, 139 minutes
Director: Aleksei Sidorov
Screenplay: Aleksei Sidorov
DoP: Mikhail Milashin
Composers: Vadim Maevskii, Aleksandr Turkunov, Ivan Burliaev, Dmitrii Noskov
Editors: Dmitrii Korabelnikov, Oren Castro, Slava Iakovlev
Cast: Aleksandr Petrov, Vinzenz Kiefer, Viktor Dobronravov, Irina Starshenbaum, Iurii Borisov, Anton Bogdanov, Petr Skvortsov, Semen Treskunov, Guram Bablishvili
Producers: Ruben Dishdishian, Anton Zlatopolskii, Len Blavatnik, Nelli Iaralova, Nikita Mikhalkov, Leonid Vereshchagin, Iuliia Ivanova, Nikolai Larionov

Aleksei Sidorov: T-34 (2019)

reviewed by Denise J. Youngblood © 2019

Updated: 2019