Movie of the Week: White Tiger

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3/15/2015

Geopolitics Lessons from a Russian Tanker

By Yuriy Selivanov

Translated from Russian by J.Hawk

It’s been three years since Mosfilm finished one of the most
unusual creations of the contemporary Russian film industry, the movie White
Tiger by Karen Shakhnazarov. The year was a rather tolerant and prosperous
2012, the glamorous portrait of life was at the peak of its popularity,
therefore a movie about a badly burned Russian tanker seemed out of place.
Which was confirmed by its poor commercial showing.

Nobody knew then what would happen to that world in mere two
years and how, in the context of the unknown future, one ought to watch that
truly prophetic film. Warn us next time!

Now that the world has been turned upside down, it would be
a good idea to re-release that film with an appropriate advertising
slogan, something along the lines of “Prophecy comes true or…reminiscences from
the future”.

Indeed, the creators of White Tiger were able to, in an
allegorical form, dig into deep layers of historical and philosophical meaning still relevant today, making one proud of our film industry. Industry
which, in spite of the decades of its hollywoodization, nevertheless preserved
its identity and unique world view.

First and foremost, the movie is an intellectually and
morally healthy creation. That by itself is a rarity in our time. That trait visible
everywhere in the film. Especially in the authors’ respectful treatment of the historical
symbology of the Great Patriotic War which is rendered with scrupulous precision.
One feels that the visual content of every scene was thought through to the
most minute details, from the impossibly dirty uniforms and boots in the
conditions trench mud existence to the dirty-grey cloth from which frontline
nurses improvised their headgear. From the portrait of Marshal Zhukov who
somehow ceased being Mikhail Ulyanov to the painstaking reconstructions of all
kinds of military equipment, including British Matilda and US Grant tanks
supplied under Lend-Lease, which we never saw in any earlier Russian films.

Concerning the Soviet T-34s, the large number of actual
vehicles which are shown in the movie makes such an impression, after the
invasion of nightmarish sheet-metal replicas in low-budget action films, that the movie feels like a wartime newsreel have come to life, and in a “high-end” format
to boot.

Of course, the film White Tiger bears no relation to actual
military history in its literal sense. But it nevertheless feels very truthful,
or, at any rate, more truthful than the openly history-twisting Stalingrad by
Bondarchuk-junior, even though the movie claimed strict accuracy.

Even though it’s not the truth of the facts but the truth of
the meaning, it does not change the essence. The best domestic movie-making
always placed the emphasis on the truthfulness of the meaning, meaning as deep as
life itself. And on the brilliant insights and discoveries which the
flat-footed Hollywood would never dream of.

Even the wholly made up story about a mythical Nazi tank
with a dead crew which terrorizes all living tankers appears to be mainly an
effective plot twist which allows the authors to create a particularly deep
allegory. One could not simply wrap that allegory around tank threads.  Therefore the movie contains not only the
genre-specific firefights, but also elements of construction which give it the
necessary volume and make it into a genuine historical-philosophical creation.

Many viewers influenced by the rapid flood of contemporary
soap operas simply did not understand the mystical history dressed up in
military décor—what is the point of the Nazi Germany’s capitulation ceremony
and, especially, of the never-noted Hitler speech about the fate of Europe?

But those are the crucial aspects of the film, even more
important than the symbol of total war to the death, the phantasmagorical “white
Tiger”. It’s just that none of these components should be interpreted
literally, because then the film falls apart into disconnected chunks, but
rather metaphorically, in order to fully comprehend what the movie’s author
wanted to say, things he does not want to, or perhaps cannot, say directly.
However, if we try to tie everything that’s on screen into a single logical
knot, we get the following.

The idea of a “white Tiger”, a machine capable of destroying
all living things while remaining practically invulnerable because it is already
dead, is an operational model of the “dark German genius” which embodies the
eternal aggressive militarism of the Western European version of Homo Sapiens.

It is not insignificant that our tanker was not able to
finish off this beast which is fated to continue to exist without changing its
blood-thirsty nature for as long as the anti-civilization which gave it birth exists.
The culmination of the film’s meaning takes place during the dialogue between the
colonel and our immortal tanker, which takes place shortly after the war’s end.
The officer is trying to convince him that the war is in the past, that the “white
Tiger” is no longer dangerous. But the tanker knows otherwise and tells the
colonel “You are mistaken. It will appear again. It will wait for as long as it
takes. Fifty years, one hundred years. Then it will crawl out of hiding and
start shooting again.”

The German capitulation scene, shown in a strictly
documentary manner, has a counterpoint in the movie in the form of the feast by
German generals who have just signed their country’s death certificate. First we are shown a situation of extreme desperation, which is followed by a
relaxed conversation among the same individuals discussing table wines and
dessert in the form of strawberries and cream. At first glance it might seem this is
gallows humor, an attempt by the condemned to grasp at some aspect of the lives
they are leaving behind. But that’s only the first impression. Later comes the
understanding of the real meaning of this, one might think, unnatural calm and full
composure of these dead men walking. They, these generals, simply view what had
just happened as an episode, nothing more. They are certain that nothing fatal
had happened, even if they themselves are in deep trouble. Yes, Germany, the
blade of the Western sword, had lost another battle. But nothing more than
that! It suffered defeats in the past and will suffer them in the future! The
battle of civilizations is far from over. There will be new turns of history.
The deadly “white Tiger” which is still free somewhere guarantees it. While we
are taking a break, why not talk about strawberries and cream. Only the naïve among
us felt that back then, in 1945, all the i’s were dotted.

It is also noteworthy that the strikingly direct Hitler’s
monologue which is clearly intended for our era appears on the screen only
after the curtain had fallen on the Second World War at Karlshorst, when the
Nazi leader was no longer in a condition to say anything because at that time
he was already dead. One has to think that the movie’s authors know the
chronology of historical events perfectly well, and that their placing of a
scene with living Hitler after the capitulation was done deliberately.

The wholly invented post-mortem monologue attributed to
Hitler who, according to the movie authors, survived the war in his ideational form, condenses the main meaning of this “movie as a warning,” the entire ominous content
of its message which, one fervently hopes, will reach our compatriots’
consciousness. Hitler is saying that Europe as a whole, and its relationship to
the rest of the world in general and to Russia in particular, is the same as
Nazi Germany’s, as it has adopted Hitler’s ideas of building a new European order
at the expense of nations and races alien to Europe. It just so happened that
these all-European ideas were expressed and raised by Nazi Germany. Europe,
according to Hitler, had always tried and will always try to rid itself from
alien elements and to subordinate them to its own influence. It’s not important
in what form Europe will exist, a Nazi Reich or an exemplarily democratic EU—those
are the thoughts of the movie’s creators which are expressed through Hitler’s
words. Creators who insist that in the dark recesses of Western consciousness, marinated
in multiple centuries of violence, there hides a death-dealing machine, the “white Tiger”,
which is outside the authority of living men and which brings universal death.
The only hope to overcome it is a flame-proof Russian tanker whom Death itself
fears.  

J.Hawk’s Comment: “White Tiger” is but one of several Russian films which appeared in recent years which prove to have been remarkably prescient. I’ll discuss them, and their meaning, at a later time. In the meantime, here’s a (very graphic) video based on out-takes from White Tiger. Unfortunately the movie itself is not yet available on Youtube.

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