Issue 38 (2012)

Karen Shakhnazarov: White Tiger (Belyi tigr, 2012)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris © 2012

tigrThe Second World War is in its last stages. A Red Army unit comes across the charred remains of a tank battle, including a burned-out Soviet tank and its occupants. Initially believing the tank driver to be dead, they discover he is alive even though he has suffered burns on 90% of his body. The tankist survives, but cannot remember his name or any part of his past. Despite his wounds, he heals completely. Neither his doctors nor his military superiors can explain his full recovery and refer to his condition as “a rare case of retrograde amnesia.” The tank driver is renamed Ivan Naidenov and sent back to the front for, as his superiors note, “warriors do not need a memory.”

Back at the front, Naidenov (played by Aleksei Vertkov) reveals he has powers beyond healing: he can hear what tanks say and use this information to determine what happened in battle. Moreover, Naidenov affirms rumors circulating at the front that a mysterious German tank dubbed “The White Tiger” materializes out of nowhere, destroys entire Soviet tank battalions, and disappears. The only thing that Naidenov recalls is his ability as a tank driver: “I remember that I am a Russian tank driver,” he tells his superiors, “what else do I need to know?” General Georgii Zhukov gives a Soviet commander, Colonel Fedotov (Vitalii Kishchenko), the task of forming a tank crew that will find and destroy the White Tiger. Fedotov puts Naidenov in charge of the mission and appoints two more soldiers to the crew, Kriuk (Aleksandr Vakhov) and Berdyev (Vitalii Dordzhiev). They are given the new T-34-85 tank to command, an experimental tank with increased armor and weaponry. The crew tracks the mysterious tank, engaging it on a couple of occasions as the Red Army advances into Europe. By the end, the war is won, but Naidenov insists that the White Tiger has not been defeated.

tigrKaren Shakhnazarov’s latest film is based on the 2009 novel Tank Man, Or the White Tiger, by Il’ia Boiashev, and features a script co-authored by the two (along with Aleksandr Borodianskii). Like the novel, the film is best understood as not just an account of the Great Patriotic War, but a meditation on the meanings of war itself. Shakhnazarov has declared that he inserted “a fantasy-mystical history into the real context of war” and that he gained inspiration from both Soviet war films and films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (Quoted in Al’perina). Naidenov and the White Tiger, as Nina Tsyrkun suggested in her review, resemble Captain Ahab and the White Whale from Herman Melville’s masterpiece, Moby Dick. In this interpretation the film therefore becomes a metaphoric tale of the struggle against evil, a comparison Shakhnazarov also made in his interview with Susanna Al’perina. Naidenov is calm yet fanatically obsessed with burning the White Tiger in order to avenge the German tank’s murderous attacks. He also, as we learn, prays to the “Tank God” and asks him for assistance in his quest. When asked to explain his beliefs, Naidenov states that the Tank God resides in heaven, wears the overalls and ear protectors of a tankist, and is surrounded by all the tanks that have died in battle. This maniacal bent leads Fedotov’s assistant, Sharipov (Gerasim Arkhipov), to doubt openly whether or not the White Tiger exists and whether or not Naidenov is insane. Yet the deaths and destruction caused by the enemy are “real,” as Fedotov notes. “The fact remains,” he tells Sharipov at one point, “It appeared, burned five tanks and four artillery guns [samokhodki], and disappeared.”

tigrIn setting up this reality, Shakhnazarov’s film forces the viewer to think about the nature of the war, its combatants, its beginnings and ends, and questions about good and evil. White Tiger also asks the viewer to think about how wars are fought, how they are remembered, and how they are mythologized. In this film, the T-34 tank serves as a powerful symbol for all three processes, for it became as much a symbol of the war and the Victory as any other, gracing countless memorials after 1945. In this role, the T-34 became a guardian of the sacrifices made by Soviet soldiers in the war, a function far removed from its terrifying nature on the battlefield.  Yet tanks—and not just T-34s—are, in the imaginative work of Patrick Wright, the “Behemoth of the modern age,” “a savage compound of fact and fiction (2).” Tanks, as Wright remind us, are terrifying, almost monstrous creations that embody the mechanized warfare of the 20th Century. White Tiger aims to recapture this aspect of war and its machines: as Shakhnazarov has stated, “it is a symbol of war and it has remained that way” (quoted in Al’perina). When Naidenov discusses his God, he tells Fedotov that “there are golden T-34s” in heaven.

tigrWhite Tiger closes in a much different fashion than Boiashev’s novel. Andrei Plakhov declared that the bulk of the film resembles a computer game about war, while the last part gives way to a museum-like reconstruction of Germany in 1945. We see the German generals, led by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel (Christian Redl), surrender to Zhukov and other Soviet generals. Afterwards they eat a meal that features frozen strawberries with cream, commenting that it is the first time they have had this treat (the scene, as Shakhnazarov noted in his interview with Al’perina, came from Keitel’s memoirs, written just months before he was hanged after the Nuremburg verdict). The film then returns to Fedotov, who watches German POWs head east before finding Naidenov still working on a tank. The Colonel tells the tankist that the war is over. Naidenov replies that “war will not end” and that the White Tiger still waits. This view is expanded upon in the closing scene, where Hitler (Karl Kranzkowski) is talking to a newspaper correspondent. In a rambling monologue about the meanings of the war, the fight against Soviet Russia, and the murder of Europe’s Jews, Hitler concludes that he has unleashed a natural thing. “War,” he declares, “is fought everywhere and always; it has no beginning and no end. War is life itself.”

This dark ending is one Shakhnazarov inserted in order to get audiences to meditate on war and its continued presence. “The older I get,” he has stated, “the more and more I think about it and the less and less I can answer it.” Citing Tolstoy, Shakhnazarov muses that “the nature of war is unnatural” and that everyone knows how awful it is, yet “war goes on and will continue to go on (quoted in Al’perina).” White Tiger is Shakhnazarov’s attempt to come to terms with this uncomfortable truth.

Stephen M. Norris
Miami University (OH)

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Works Cited

Al’perina, Susanna, “Tankovyi bog,” Rossiiskaia gazeta 3 May 2012.

Plakhov, Andrei, “Potustoronnie boevye deistviia,” Kommersant 4 May 2012.

Tsyrkun, Nina, “Rozhi u nikh ne togo,” Iskusstvo kino.

Wright, Patrick, Tank: The Progress of a Monstrous War Machine, New York: Viking, 2002.

The White Tiger, Russia 2012
Director: Karen Shakhnazarov
Script: Aleksandr Borodianskii, Karen Shakhnazarov, Il’ia Boiashov
DoP: Aleksandr Kuznetsov, Alik Tagirov
Composers: Iurii Poteenko, Konstantin Shevelev
Cast: Aleksei Vertkov, Vitalii Kishchenko, Valerii Grishko, Dmitrii Bykovskii-Romashov, Gerasim Arkhipov, Aleksandr Vakhov
Producer: Karen Shakhnazarov, Galina Shadur
Production: Mosfil’m

Karen Shakhnazarov: White Tiger (Belyi tigr, 2012)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris © 2012

Updated: 14 Oct 12