A man is born out of the ashes of defeat to act out a spectacular war story that may never end.
The official submission of Russia to the Best Foreign Language Film of the 85th Academy Awards 2013, Karen Shakhnazarov’s scintillating thriller presents an entirely different side of tank warfare. Set in the closing days of WWII, Russian forces are closing in on Berlin after months of brutal fighting and unparalleled casualties.
After one of many horrendous tank and infantry battles, an injured tank commander (Aleksey Vertkov) is pulled from the wreckage and thrown into the back of a truck headed for the medical battalion. Burned over 90% of his body, his hands must be pried from the controls of the charred remains of his tank.
Reaching the filthy and exposed camp that serves as a medical facility, the screams of the dying echo through the disfigured dead, and those who wish they were dead. The doctors put the charred commander aside and wait for him to die while attending to others with better chances.
Defying all odd, the man lives. Or, perhaps, he dies and is born again. Born again to see what others cannot see. Born as the perfect tank commander, the only soldier capable of fighting the weapon that killed, burned and mutilated countless of the soldier’s comrades. This weapon is the German White Tiger.
The White Tiger is the super tank of all super tanks. It has armor four times as thick, fires shells four times as big and at four times the rate of the best Russian tank, the T-34. No number of the opposition forces can overcome the Tiger. It kills and then recedes into the forest or the swamp, disappearing until the next fight.
When the commander revives, he reveals that he has no knowledge of his past. He does not remember his own name but he remembers the White Tiger. The commander is given the name Ivan Naydenov, for lack of any other, and sent through a series of interviews during which he reveals that he talks to tanks. By communicating with them, he knows how to defeat the White Tiger.
Disbelieving, but sensing a power in the commander, Major Fedotov (Vitaly Kishchenko) promotes him and assigns him the seemingly impossible task of killing the White Tiger.
A combination of war story and fantastic legend, “White Tiger” features exciting scenes of tank warfare coupled with uncompromising tableaus of the worst that war has to offer. The film has been likened to the Melville icon, “Moby Dick.” Not only are the mortal humans incapable of defeating the Tiger, they are incapable of understanding that the Tiger springs from their own, all too human, failures.
A captured German officer is interrogated at length about the ephemeral vehicle. He knows of it but cannot explain it in any terms other than, with a tone of self-loathing as well as awe, as “a product of the German master mind.”
Through two spectacular duals, Naydenov cripples, but fails to destroy the super-human juggernaut. He refuses to give up hope that the ghostly warrior can be destroyed. Meanwhile, the Russian army reaches Berlin. The highest German officials convene to sign the papers of unconditional surrender.
As the papers flow back and forth during the most solemn of ceremonies there is a feeling of unfinished business. A spirit of uneasy, hidden understandings fogs the air and denies the balm of peace to those present. A photographer snaps the signing and is struck off his feet by some unseen force.
Major Fedotov watches the defeated, beaten, disarmed German troops as they march out of Berlin to return to their decimated homes, families and lives. He makes one last trip to commander Naydenov’s tank, to find that he has loaded up extra rounds of ammunition in anticipation of the next battle.
The music of Richard Wagner makes up the soundtrack of this mesmerizing story of war, politics and human frailty. Excellent performances throughout the cast create a feeling of grounded realism with an undercurrent of seething evil that we can only wish were fantasy. The inexplicable and the unavoidable come together in a war to end all wars. As it turns out, that war, in all probability, will never end.
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Directed by: Karen Shakhnazarov
Written by: Aleksandr Borodyanskiy and Karen Shakhnazarov (screenplay) based on the novel “Tank Crewman” by Ilya Boyashov
Starring: Aleksey Vertkov, Vitaly Kishchenko
Release Date: May 3, 2012 (Russia)
MPAA: Not Rated
Run Time: 104 minutes
Language: Russian with English subtitles