White Tiger film reviewIvan Got His Gun

White Tiger
directed by Karen Shakhnazarov

Soldiers in tanks are not blown to bits. They are cooked alive. Such is the fate suffered by one Russian tank mechanic on the Eastern Front. He suffers burns over 90 percent of his body yet he survives. Gone instead is his memory; he retains all his skills but does not remember who he is –– his name, age, place of birth: all lost. Nicknamed Ivan Naydenov (meaning “found”), he is sent back to the front. Johnny went to war and was reborn as Ivan the Fool.

In the meantime, the Russians try to find who or what it is that destroyed Ivan’s division. They call it “White Tiger,” but no one knows what “it” is, not even captured Germans. Stalking in silence, it ambushes from the rear and disappears without a trace. It is impervious to shelling and never misses its prey: It is an übertank.

When deputy chief of counter-espionage Major Fedotov (Vitaliy Kishchenko), newly assigned to track down this mysterious menace, suggests to Ivan (Aleksey Vertkov) that he might have had a family, he replies, “If I had a family, I’m sure they have received word of my death. Dead men should not come back.” In place of his past and identity, awakened in Ivan is an ability to listen to his machines, given to him by a “tank god.” To Ivan, it is obvious that White Tiger is not of the living. Hunting it becomes his mission in “this” life.

Russia's official Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film, White Tiger is a perfect fantasy war game –– but that’s not the way it unfolds. Shot bare-bones style on location, it has more the look and feel of Spielberg’s ’71 Duel than the latest CG extravaganza. Steadycam visuals are counterweighted by the majestic sway of Wagner and an additional orchestral score by Yuriy Poteenko and Konstantin Shevelyov. Battlefields seen from the bellies of iron beasts are punctuated by the uncertain semi-dark of the makeshift officers’ headquarters. By avoiding epic panoramas and focusing instead on the footsoldiers’ p.o.v. –– the kind that don’t go out with a bang but roast –– White Tiger slowly and capably enfolds the viewer in its myth.

The illusion sustained by the film’s visual simplicity begins to crack as Germans stride down a hallway on their way to sign their surrender to the Russians: Their boots echo on the wooden floor –– wait, shouldn’t that be marble? The hallway also seems a trifle narrow, as do the depicted streets of Berlin, where the boys and girls of the Red Army watch the procession of defeated German men. As if to justify the proletarian art direction, a Soviet-style jab at the German class division follows the scene of surrender. When a fine meal is brought for the Germans, it becomes apparent that the main signatory, who so pompously screwed on a monocle moments before, had never been to Schlemmers, the finest restaurant in Berlin: an arriviste Nazi among the ancien-régime Wehermacht generals.

The final insult to the Reich grandeur is delivered when a defeated Hitler narrates his philosophy –– war is the normal state of humankind –– to an unidentified listener. The camera scans “degenerate opulence,” and one expects treasures of Europe looted by the Nazis. What one sees are thrift-store Nouveau nude nymphs frolicking on spray-painted gold plaster.
–– Rika Ohara

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