White Tiger (Russian: Belyy tigr), 2012.
Directed Karen Shakhnazarov.
Starring Aleksey Vertkov, Vitaliy Kishchenko, Valeriy Grishko, Dmitriy Bykovskiy-Romashov, Gerasim Arkhipov and Aleksandr Vakhov.
After barely surviving a battle with a mysterious, ghostly-white Tiger tank, Red Army Sergeant Ivan Naydenov becomes obsessed with its destruction.
From the looks of the DVD packaging and a brilliantly hammy dubbed trailer, I was ready to write off White Tiger as a straightforward ‘gritty’ WWII action film, broadly-written characters philosophising vaguely between pedestrian remakes of the battle scenes of Saving Private Ryan. And yet from only a few moments in my entire perception of the film changed, and I was compelled. Later on however, it became a harder film to like.
Following a battle on the Russian front, 1943, a tank crewman is found still inside his massacred vehicle, black with burns and blood. Still living (just), he is treated and makes a miraculous recovery but loses all memory save for his military training. Meanwhile, myths spread about the Russian army concerning the existence of a Flying Dutchman-like rogue tank, bigger than all others and cosmically-destructive. A party is put together to seek and destroy the so-called White Tiger and heading the crew is the monk-like tank crewman Naydenov (Aleksey Vertkov), sole living survivor of a White Tiger attack.
So begins a Moby Dick-like journey into ‘madness, or is it?’, an existential fable of two phoenixes of war, undying and eternal in conflict. During its opening sequences and the beginnings of its men-on-a-mission middle act, White Tiger is brilliantly compelling, a precisely-written and assuredly-directed search into the soul of the soldier, man as the forever struggling, fighting creature of the world, the characters so well-drawn and performed that they feel near-archetypal in their import. It’s a credit to the performers – particularly Vertkov, whose stillness is enigmatic rather than bogus, who never convinces either as a crazy amnesiac but is credibly mystic – that their characters feel grounded in reality, despite not being handed swathes of clumsy background in the fashion of Tom Hanks’ ‘I’m a schoolteacher’ monologue in Private Ryan.
The sequences of tank warfare are fetishistic without feeling too gratuitous, and in one terrifically-choreographed moment we realise how much our tank crewman sees his battlefield in his head, ‘feels’ it and speaks to it through his tank, when an enemy is revealed to be perched behind his own.
White Tiger’s later sequences feel pumped increasingly with action as a means of following through on the vague promise of being a war-actioner and broaden its audience. They unfortunately steal from the first half’s deftly-directed and classically dramatic charm, although this isn’t to imply that the film runs from its thematic substance. Instead, dense plotting and more didactic philosophising takes over, which expands the film’s scope but diffuses the sense of a pure, titanic clash between Naydenov and the White Tiger, the eternal soldier and his war. The film comes to an admirable end, however, with an odd but not uninteresting monologue which closes the film on a similar, though less skillfully managed note than the equally-nihilistic No Country for Old Men, to which this feels a kinship.
Last but not least, White Tiger is terrifically shot and wonderful to look at. Despite my presumption, after his opening long take, that the camera would become increasingly emphatic, director Karen Shakhnazarov is in fact terrifically workmanlike. Shots are constructed wisely and timed impeccably, with a great sense – a sense the actors share – of stillness over movement.
Despite opening at the seams and losing its compelling directness during its second half, White Tiger has enough brilliance in its first half, and between its later frustrations, to recommend it highly.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★