White Tiger: Doha Tribeca Review

Russian Oscar contender is a magic-realist wartime thriller about a mythical Nazi super-tank.

Russia's Oscar contender, adapted from Ilya Boyashov’s novella, is a wartime thriller about a Soviet commander who vows revenge on an apparently indestructible German tank.

Irresistible force meets movable object in Russia’s official entry for the best foreign language Oscar, an allegorical World War II thriller about a superhuman Soviet tank commander who vows revenge on an apparently indestructible German tank. Showing at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival this week, director Karen Shakhnazarov’s solidly crafted adaptation of Ilya Boyashov’s recent novella depicts the tank much like the whale in Moby Dick, the truck in Duel or the shark in Jaws – as a malevolent killing machine with almost mystical powers.
The longtime director of the former Soviet production studio Mosfilm, Shakhnazarov is the son of a prominent Russian-Armenian politician who worked closely with Mikhail Gorbachev. Indeed, White Tiger feels at times like a throwback to all those World War II morale-boosters produced under the old Communist system, with their stern-faced Soviet warrior-heroes and implacable reminders about the dormant demons of fascism. Already a modest success at home, this fable-like adventure story is a little old-fashioned in pace and tone, but may well attract a niche foreign audience on the strength of its Oscar buzz and evergreen subject matter.
The action mostly takes place in the woodlands of eastern Germany in the final months of the war. Aleksey Vertkov plays a Russian tank driver who miraculously survives an appalling attack that leaves him with 90 per cent burns. Though unable to recall his past, or even his name, he does remember the German tank that almost killed him. Apparently unmanned, with the uncanny ability to glide across swamps and melt into thin air, this square-shouldered metallic dragon must be slain. Rechristened Ivan Naydenov by his commanders, the Russian becomes obsessive in his search-and-destroy mission, even praying to his own tank God.
A string of ambushes and showdowns follows, featuring particularly powerful sound design when the German tank spits its ferocious heavy-metal artillery. A gunfight in the main drag of an abandoned village has all the high-noon drama of a classic western. These are the most exciting scenes in the film, set to a thumping martial score that pointedly incorporates motifs from Adolf Hitler’s favourite composer, Wagner. However, these battles eventually become repetitive, with no clear forward momentum and dramatic impact often blunted by the cumbersome, creaky movement of the tanks.
Shakhnazarov pulls back to a wider historical perspective for the final act, shifting to the German surrender in the bombed-out ruins of Berlin. An unfathomably long scene in which the surviving generals of Nazi high command share an expensive post-defeat meal seems solely designed to portray them as monstrous bourgeois snobs – possibly accurate, but surely the least of their crimes.
A late cameo by Hitler himself, seen in flashback calmly justifying his race-hate philosophy, hammers home the heavy-handed message that fascism and anti-Semitism remain active forces long after World War II. This is an admirably serious point, but hardly a shock revelation to anyone over the age of 12. White Tiger has noble ambitions, visceral action and plenty of impressive technical polish, but it sometimes lumbers along as gracelessly as the eponymous tank at the heart of its story.
Venue: Doha Tribeca Film Festival
Production companies: Mosfilm, Channel One Russia
Producers: Galina Shadur, Karen Shakhnazarov
Cast: Aleksey Vertkov, Vitaly Kishchenko, Gerasim Arkhipov, Aleksandr Bakhov
Director: Karen Shakhnazarov
Writers: Aleksandr Borodyanskiy, Karen Shakhnazarov, from the novel by Ilya Boyashov
Cinematographer: Aleksandr Kuznetsov
Editor: Irina Kozhemyakina   
Production designer: Sergey Fevralyev   
Music: Yuriy Poteenko, Konstantin Shevelyov
Sales company: Mosfilm
Ratinng TBC, 104 minutes