Russian director Karen Shakhnazarov never ceases to experiment, with both subject matter and style. WWII-set “White Tiger” is his first war film, a weird, wondrous tale of an eerie white fascist tank that appears, attacks and vanishes, leaving smoldering Russian tanks and cremated corpses in its wake. Shakhnazarov has compared “Tiger,” with its hero obsessed by a white leviathan, to “Moby Dick”; for Americans, however, the true precedent for the ongoing vehicular battle is Steven Spielberg’s oddly similar “Duel.” Pic’s strong aesthetic and suspenseful action sequences could wow auds worldwide, but its problematic mysticism skews heavily Russian.
Adapted from a novel by Shakhnazarov and his usual screenwriter, Aleksandr Borodyanskiy, the pic abounds with otherworldly elements from the start. Russian soldiers, happening upon a destroyed tank division, discover a blackened tank driver with burns on 90% of his body; he not only survives but miraculously heals in three weeks, unscarred. Born of war, remembering nothing of his former life, the renamed Ivan Naydenov (Aleksey Vertkov) claims to have gained the mystical ability to communicate with armored vehicles and to have been assigned the mission of destroying the White Tiger, the undying symbol of war, by an overall-clad God of Tanks.
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Standing between this oddball combatant and the war-weary Russian command is Major Fedotov (Vitaly Kishchenko), who finds himself in the unfortunate position of witnessing events he cannot explain, thus serving as the viewer’s surrogate. Fedotov serves as Ivan’s reluctant champion, giving him command of a souped-up tank and allowing his special abilities to trump apparent reality, to the unease of Ivan’s crewmen, asked to shoot at targets they cannot see. The battle is then engaged between two mystical forces, an unmanned superpanzer that materializes and disappears at will, and Ivan’s T-34, protected by powers that steer it from harm.
As head of Mosfilm, helmer Shakhnazarov commandeers the studio’s huge fleet of vintage, fully functional WWII tanks, and deploys them brilliantly. The battles, quietly set to Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” are masterful, culminating in a spooky game of hide-and-seek in a European ghost town that qualifies as an unmitigated tour de force. Shakhnazarov and editor Irina Kozhemyakina alternate between shots outside and inside Ivan’s tank as it crashes through trees and houses, pauses, creeps and lurches forward again.
“White Tiger” terminates with two particularly odd scenes only tenuously connected to the rest of the film; luckily, Shakhnazarov’s powerful image-making largely subsumes the film’s many peculiarities. Thesping proves superb throughout: Vertkov, who portrayed the ostensible madman in Shakhnazarov’s “Ward No. 6,” completely convinces as the wacko communing with a higher being, while Kishchenko perfectly mirrors the audience’s conflicted belief. Production values are superlative.