Ghost Tank, by David Bax
Karen Shakhnazarov’s White Tiger might, based on the most basic elements of its plot, come across as a slightly silly B-movie. In fact, you could change the name of the film to Ghost Tank without being the least bit disingenuous. Yet Shakhnazarov, while never losing sight of the sublimely low-brow thrills of a war film, handles his tale with an abundance of insight and unwavering seriousness.
In the summer of 1943, though the Russians are winning the war, they are losing battle after battle to a mysterious German tank that seems to suddenly appear behind their lines and pulverize their own armored vehicles. The driver of one such destroyed Russian tank, Seargant Ivan Naydenov (Aleksey Vertkov) is burnt to a crisp on 90% of his body but somehow he is not only alive but perfectly alert and in no pain. Furthermore, he heals completely. Within a matter of weeks, he looks like he had never been burnt at all. That’s not to say he’s returned to normal, though. Something in him has changed. He can sense the presence and the movements – perhaps the very thoughts – of the phantom tank that tried to kill him. Under the watch of Captain Sharipov (Gerasim Arkhipov in the role that reveals itself to be the film’s true lead), Naydenov is given a specially outfitted tank and a handpicked crew and sent off with one order. Destroy the German tank they call the White Tiger.
If, for some reason, that doesn’t sound to you like reason enough to see this film, there is much more to recommend it. Action fans in particular will want to make sure to catch this in a theater (if they can; so far, it lacks distribution) and one with a great sound system at that. The numerous tank battles are deafening and flooring in their lovingly captured displays of overwhelming firepower and excessive destruction.
What sets these battles apart from similar sequences in other war films is the almost complete lack of humans. Now, White Tiger has a screenplay whose dialogue is a thing of wonder and fine performances abound. But when it comes time for the tanks to do battle, humanity recedes and we are left to be awestruck by the terrible beauty of machinery doing what it was created to do.
These tanks were created not only to fire devastating rounds into one another endlessly. They were also created to aid in the conversation that is war between opposing sides. When diplomacy has been exhausted or abandoned, the dialogue between parties takes the form of ordnance instead of words. And, as White Tiger nudges us to conclude, the machines are far more efficient communicators than we are.
In scene after painstaking scene, Shakhnazarov (who adapted Ilya Boyashov’s novel with co-screenwriter Aleksandr Borodyanskiy) depicts interrogations of German prisoners. Each time, he includes every Russian-to-German translation of the questions and every German-to-Russian translation of the responses. Contrasted with the simple back of forth of the respective sides’ weaponry, it seems a hopeless mess.
So if Naydenov is becoming more in tune with the streamlined nature of the tanks, perhaps he could be said to represent the next step in human evolution. He may not look like RoboCop but he is now part machine. In this way, White Tiger makes a cold and brutal but persuasive argument in favor of the singularity.
It’s not all academic, though. Just as the tanks maneuver with an unadorned grace, so does the camera. Cinematographer Aleksandr Kuznetsov employs an economy of movement but maintains a composition that is not only pleasing but ruthlessly informative throughout.
Late in the film, Kuznetsov lights a dialogue scene between two characters – whom we haven’t seen before – so that one is bathed in firelight and one is drenched in shadow. This exchange has nothing to do with the plot and everything to do with the film. Kuznetsov’s lighting and the words spoken lead us to consider what human nature is. Is there anything about it that is permanent or is each thing that we believe to be intrinsically human merely a brief development on a long evolutionary timeline? And, if there are things that are truly, eternally human, what if they turn out to be the absolute worst parts of us?
As mentioned above, White Tiger, despite being Russia’s candidate for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, has no scheduled US release date. As soon as it gets one, though, pencil it in. It is a puzzling, beautiful, hilarious and mesmerizing film that is certainly one of the best of the year.