Friday, April 3, 2015

God rides a golden tank. A comment on "White Tiger"

Screenshot from "White Tiger", a 2012 movie by Karen Shakhnazarov. In this crucial scene, 'tankist' Naydenov (right) tells his mentor, Major Fedetov (left) about the God of tanks. I saw this movie once, then I restarted watching it and I saw it once more. The day after, I watched it again from start to end. I think I will watch it again and again. I don't know if I can fully render justice to this movie with this comment, but I can try.

You cannot understand "White Tiger", the 2012 movie by Karen Shakhnazarov, if you don't understand the fascination that Russians have for battle tanks and, in particular, for the T-34 tank, the backbone of the Soviet Army during the second world war. 

I think I can get a feeling of this Russian vision by comparing the T-34 tank to a car, the Italian Fiat 500 of the 1960s. If the T-34 saved the Soviet Union from military annihilation, you could say that the Fiat 500 saved Italy from economic annihilation. Both the T-34 and the 500 were nothing but pieces of metal, but they entered the collective consciousness of the country where they were produced. They became symbols, they acquired a soul of their own. 

Just like in Italy old Fiat 500s are still lovingly kept running, the city squares of Russia and of other former Soviet countries often still herald an old T-34 in a central position. You can see those old tanks if you travel in Eastern Europe. Or you can just digit "T-34 tank monument" on your search engine. You'll find dozens of them. A memory of old times, yes, but also a small homage to the soul of the machine;  somehow still alive in the belly of the steel beast. (the image here is from Crimea).

The movie by Karen Shakhnazarov, "White Tiger" takes the concept of the soul of the tank one, or perhaps two, notches upward. Here, the protagonist, tankist Ivan Naydenov speaks with tanks, and they speak to him. In an eerie moment of the film, Naydenov tells to his mentor, mayor Fedotov, of the "God of Tanks", who lives in the sky, rides a golden tank, and speaks with His cannon and when He does so, we hear the sound of thunder. 

Told in this way, the story looks nearly pure madness, but it is the very point of the movie: a true masterpiece. Madness is what you get when you perceive the other side of the curtain - the curtain that hides the truth. The protagonist, Naydenov, has seen the truth for a brief moment, when the curtain was removed and he was burned to near death by a shot of the ghostly "White Tiger", the monster Nazi machine. And it is very well known that removing the curtain can burn a man to a cinder, unless God Himself protects him (or perhaps Itself, if God is a battle tank). In the movie, spared by the God of tanks, Naydenov has changed - he is not any more completely human. He has seen things that humans can't even imagine. 

So, the film moves on in a mythical quest, a land based version of "Moby Dick", with the white whale in the form of a white tank. But there is no evil Captain Ahab, here, and Naydenov is more like Sir Galahad, the perfect knight of "La Morte d'Arthur." Or perhaps like Marduk fighting the dragoness Tiamat in Akkadian lore.

You could say that the movie has a clear meaning linked to recent events, especially when Naydenov says that the evil tank is not destroyed, but it lurks somewhere, ready to come back, "maybe in 20 years, maybe 50, or a hundred years". Yes, it is a facet of the movie, but the theme of the return of the Nazi evil is not a cheap propaganda shot. It is way deeper than that. This movie is not a trivial version of the theme of good guys versus bad guys, as it is in an endless number of movies from Hollywood. No, it is more subtle, more nuanced, more structured.

Evil and good are not the same thing, but in a way they depend from each other. There could be no good if there were no evil - and evil and good are part of a great cycle. Evil is part of us - we cannot ignore it, we can never completely avoid it. In the movie, evil is evil, but it has a dignity of its own. As Naydenov says at some moment about the German tankers, 'they are fascists, of course, but they are human beings." Even Adolf Hitler, who appears at the end of the movie, has a chance to state his reasons. And you hear the reasons of evil from him, just as you see evil in action as the "dead" white tiger tank - terrible and eerily elegant, not at all like the clumsy hordes of Orcs of the latest generation of movies from the imperial lands.

In another post, I argued that the Empire is by now unable to produce a work of fiction that's not merely a celebration of itself. This movie reinforces this idea of mine: the focus of creative thought has shifted away from the great cities of the Empire - rich, but without a soul. The Empire can only produce tales designed to obscure the truth; the definition of what we term "propaganda". If you  want to hear tales that help you see the truth, you must look at the periphery of the Empire, or outside it.

Do you remember at the time of the Roman Empire, when John (1:46) said: "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" It did at that time - it may happen again.


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