‘White Tiger’ is Like ‘The Horse Whisperer,’ But With Tanks
There’s surprising depth in this movie about a man who can talk to armored vehicles
by SEBASTIEN ROBLIN
White Tiger is an artsy, Oscar-nominated film about a man who can talk with tanks. Other titles that could apply to it — The Tank Whisperer. Moby Tank. God of Tanks. Nightmare on Tank Street.
This 2012 production will appeal not only to tank fans, but to anyone intrigued by a slow-paced, sumptuously-composed and quite bizarre movie examining war from a mystical, uniquely-Russian point of view.
White Tiger begins in 1943 with one of many long, masterful takes, as Russian troops wearily pick over the shattered remains of one of their armored units.
Amid the burned-out hulks there’s a lone survivor, his skin mostly burned off. The triage nurse nearly turns him away, but the survivor miraculously makes a full recovery after only two weeks in the hospital.
He can remember neither his name nor whether he has any family — he only knows that he is a tankist. Though clearly off in the head, he gets sent back to the front line. “You don’t need any memory to load a cannon in a tank,” an officer growls.
His handlers give him a new name — Naydenov. “Found.”
Naydenov can confirm what other Soviets and captured Germans are reporting — a mysterious Tiger tank, painted all white, is wreaking havoc on Russian armored units. Appearing suddenly out of impassable forests and swamps, it wipes out any Russian tanks it encounters.
A skeptical intelligence officer, Major Fedotov, recruits Naydenov and two other crew members to pilot a souped-up T-34/85 tank on a mission to take out the rampaging Tiger.
White Tiger just gets weirder from there. Naydenov is convinced he can speak to the spirits of knocked-out tanks — and even worships an, uh, “tank god.” The White Tiger, he says, has no crew — it is a ghost tank that hunts with inhuman precision.
Despite being about giant steel war machines blowing each other up with enormous cannons, on the screen White Tiger is actually a study in stillness, silence and long ominous pauses. The first battle doesn’t occur until a half hour into the film.
The camera angles are elaborate. The setting is a primeval pine forest scarred by war. The score is heavy on Wagner — and not “Ride of the Valkyries.”
The film doesn’t try to recreate the experience of the Eastern Front — in fact, no human physically harms another on-screen in the film. Evidence of human suffering abounds, however, and the characters behold it with deadened eyes. It’s as if the war has made people like the war machines they crew.
White Tiger’s second act adopts the tense cadence of a horror film as Naydenov stalks the Tiger and Major Fedotov confronts the evidence of the German tank’s supernatural nature. When the White Tiger appears out of the mists to slaughter a Soviet tank company, disappearing and reappearing at will, its unstoppable assault is like that of a killer in a slasher flick.
The film features real tanks and no CGI, and the director knows how to treat the vehicles as characters in their own right — whether alive and running, or burned-out and dead. The White Tiger, however, is actually a modified IS-2.
The final confrontation between the White Tiger and Naydenov’s T-34 is as suspenseful as the best Western gunfight, involving a cat-and-mouse chase in a rural town involving vehicles weighing a hundred tons between them.
Unfortunately, the film then trails on for another half hour in a vein utterly unrelated to the plot. We witness humiliated German officers struggling to enjoy strawberries with cream. Next, there’s a soliloquy by Adolf Hitler as he tries to justify his war crimes.
While some of these scenes reinforce the themes of the movie, their languid pacing bloats an otherwise taut film.
That said, White Tiger’s bizarre tank-obsessed mysticism is rooted in Russia’s historical experience and communicates a clear message.
The hundreds of miles stretching between the Germany and Russia’s Ural mountains are largely open, flat ground on which tanks thrive. German tanks nearly destroyed Russia, and Russian tanks certainly saved her.
The Tiger tank and the T-34 are national icons of Germany and Russia, respectively. Pop culture fetishizes the Tiger as a product of expert German engineering, efficient and powerful, with armor that most Allied tanks were incapable of piercing and an 88-millimeter cannon that could effortlessly destroy any opponent.
In reality, the Tiger was over-engineered and expensive to produce, broke down frequently and by 1944 was at least matched by Russia’s Josef Stalin tanks and even the America’s M-26 Pershing. But that never tarnished the Tiger’s reputation.
Likewise, the T-34 is renown for being rugged, reliable, uncomfortable to ride in, and numerous — Russia built more than 80,000 of the tanks, compared to the mere 1,347 Tigers that Germany produced. In addition to being fielded in vast numbers, the T-34 was in fact far superior to early German tanks. Even though it later lost its technological edge, it remained a viable tank up to the very end of World War II, and even into the Korean War.
The Tiger and the T-34 thus function as immortal metaphors for the German and Russian nations, doomed to seemingly eternal struggle. The tank god Naydenov worships embodies the mechanized armies laying waste to wide swaths of Eastern Europe, leaving behind wastelands of burned-out wrecks.
Discussing Naydenov’s peculiar religion, two Russian officers bring up God, the Devil, Communism and ultimately Darwnisim and finally agree — the tank god represents survival of the fittest.
Hitler’s speech at the end further underscores this theme. “We simply had the courage to carry out what Europe dreamed of doing,” he ruminates. “Their whole lives they were afraid of Russia, gloomy country to the east. That centaur, wild and alien to Europe.”
“War is eternal,” Hitler concludes. “War is the natural state.”
The speech teases the stereotypically resigned Russian outlook toward history, learned over centuries of devastating foreign invasion, that war is indeed unending. The German Tiger — or perhaps the entire West — will always be lurking in the forest, waiting for the opportunity to pounce.
“He’s waiting,” Naydenov warns. “He might wait 20, 50, even 100 years. But one day he’ll crawl out … You know what has to be done.”