White Tiger

Tanks a lot

“War is the original human state,” Russian directors seem to say

On Cinema

This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Victory Day in Russia has traditionally been a day for watching old Soviet movies about the Great Patriotic War: classics such as Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying (1957), which is available on DVD from Criterion; Vladimir Vengerov’s Baltic Skies (1961); Stanislav Rostotskiy’s The Dawns Here Are Quiet (1972); Leonid Bykov’s Only Old Men Are Going to Battle (1973), free to watch on YouTube; Sergey Bondarchuk’s They Fought for the Motherland (1975), also on YouTube; and Semyon Aranovich’s Torpedo Bombers (1983). The Dawns Here Are Quiet was remade as a TV series, starting in 2015, and you can watch that on YouTube as well.

This year, Victory Day was overshadowed by Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, which has taken a wrecking ball to Russia’s resurgent film industry. For the past decade 70 per cent of Russia’s domestic cinema revenue has come from US films — films they shall now have to live without — while an international boycott of Russian films will limit their foreign exchange revenue.

For the past decade 70 per cent of Russia’s domestic cinema revenue has come from US films

“This is a war and Russia started it,” said the director of Petrov’s Flu, Kirill Serebrennikov, who has gone into self-exile in Europe to complete his film Limonov, starring Ben Wishaw. But most directors with successful careers dependent on domestic subjects and audiences have stayed behind.

If the past 20 years are anything to go by, Putin’s regime understands the propaganda value of films glorifying the nation’s military victories in the Great Patriotic War. Indeed, such is the epic scale of these films that few of them could have been made without state subsidy.

There have been films that celebrate individual devotion to the cause, such as Viktoria Fansiutina’s Soldier Boy (2019), about a six-year-old orphan who became the smallest soldier and hero of the Great Patriotic War, and Konstantin Buslov’s Kalashnikov (2020), in which a tank driver invents the assault rifle that came to bear his name.

There was also Aleksandr Ustyugov’s Secret Weapon (2019), about the development of the Katyusha rocket launcher. And there have been films about tanks, tanks, tanks, such as Konstantin Maksimov’s Tankers (2018), Aleksey Sidorov’s T-34 (2019), and Kim Druzhinin’s Tanks for Stalin (2020).

Ben Whishaw in Limonov

Indeed, it is an exquisite irony that so many of these films celebrate the success of Russian tank warfare in the Second World War when so many tanks in the Ukraine War have proved to be mere coffins for their crews.

In Vera Storozheva’s Maria. Save Moscow (2021), Maria is an NKVD officer who is asked by a clairvoyant eldress to rescue a sacred icon from behind enemy lines and take it to Moscow, thereby saving the city from Nazi invasion.

Some Russians were offended by the suggestion that superstition rather than Soviet manpower saved Moscow. Certainly, the two Russian Orthodox priests who recently overflew the Donbas in a helicopter with a sacred icon seem to have had little effect on Russia’s campaign there.

A film that combines both tanks and mysticism may sound outlandish to us, but that is what director Karen Shakhnazarov managed to achieve with White Tiger (2012), Russia’s selection for the 2013 Best Foreign Film Oscar, which is available on DVD. Shaknazarov heads the state-owned Mosfilm studio and is a Putin loyalist.

In White Tiger a Russian tank driver is found with 90 per cent burns in a wrecked tank and makes a miraculous recovery. He tells of a white-painted German Tiger tank that repeatedly emerges from the marshes like a ghost and is able to destroy several Russian tanks within minutes. The driver asks for a faster, better protected version of the T-34 and is given the mission of destroying the German ghost-tank.

He finally causes it some damage, but the war is over before he can destroy this “triumph of German genius” and he vows to wait until its return. He then seems to become a ghost himself. Superbly realised battle scenes are bound up with Russian superstition and mysticism that will have less resonance with Western audiences.

Superbly realised battle scenes are bound up with Russian superstition and mysticism

This war may be over, the film seems to be saying, but the Nazis will return from Europe at some point in the future. In the film’s coda, Adolf Hitler is seen in a darkened room talking with an unidentified confidant. “War is the original, human state,” he declares. Although it is Hitler who says this, it might as well be the message of Russia’s pro-Putin film directors. After all, it was Shakhnazarov who said, on Russian state TV, that there should be no mercy for opponents of the letter Z and that they should face “concentration camps, re-education and sterilisation.”

And yet someone called “Dina” defiantly told the dissident Russian website meduza.io that she would watch the movie Only Old Men Are Going to Battle on 9 May. “To me, the movie isn’t about war; it’s about having a love for life. I want to hear [Soviet actor] Leonid Bykov’s character say, ‘Everything is fleeting, but music is forever’ and ‘Today we fought over my Ukraine.’ He says it with such love!”

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