Part war flick, part ghost story and all political commentary, Karen Shakhnazarov’s 2012 film “White Tiger” offers us the ‘theme park ride’ action of modern blockbusters. There’s a very important lesson to be learned from it, however – how to portray fascism in modern media.
Portraying Nazis in films has always been done one of two ways. Hollywood has typically played up the supposed tactical, technological and industrial supremacy of the German Reich for dramatic tension. In the US film “Fury” (2014) for instance, the first two acts are designed to build up fear and awe at the mere mention of the Wehrmacht or SS, only for this dramatic tension to be finally brought to a peak when the titular tank’s crew holds back a whole battalion of them – sacrificing their lives in the process.
This type of framing (that we’ll now refer to as ‘supremacy’ type framing) fulfils the same role as Nazi propaganda films – feeble enemies matched against a greatly superior Germany. “Triumph of the Will” (1935), with its Wagner score and seas of well trained, well equipped German soldiers hits so many of the same notes as modern Hollywood films that it almost seems like parody – which leads into our second type.
Comedic portrayals of fascists have their own issue – in their levity they often fail to address fascism as an ideology. They focus instead on the idea that most Germans secretly hated Hitler or that perhaps all the Nazi officials were actually just idiots. As far back as Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” (1940) and as recently as “Jojo Rabbit” (2019), even in jest and even when authorial intent is clear, giving Nazis (or Nazi analogues) funny quips or lovable characteristics often serves less to demystify and more to cause empathy. Seeing an SS officer in the midst of hunting for a Jew make a joke about how dreary and dull his job is completely kills, in the mind of the audience, any real consequences the scene might’ve offered.
This satirical type, though less common than the supremacy framing type, undermines the real danger of modern fascism – relegating it in their audience’s minds to ‘fringe lunatics’ or ‘a thing of the past’.
White Tiger takes an altogether different approach.
In White Tiger, we are held distant from Nazis. We see them up close only as a typical Soviet soldier would have – captured, and through the words of an interpreter. They speak when answering questions about the white Tiger and for no other reason. The characters they are speaking to are currently repelling a fascist invasion – there is no room for caricature.
It becomes fairly obvious that the characters in this film don’t matter to the plot at hand. Our only ‘main’ characters, so to speak, are Ivan Naidyonov (Roughly translated to Joe Bloggs, John Doe or John Smith) a character whose whole being is dedicated to hunting the titular white Tiger, and the audience insert Colonel Aleksey Fedotov. Through Fedotov’s eyes, we begin to understand the metaphor underpinning the whole story.
A strange, white Tiger tank has been appearing in places it physically couldn’t be, destroying a number of Soviet vehicles and disappearing. At first glance this appears to be a classic example of supremacy framing – a captured German soldier says “That white devil is out of your league… it’s a triumph of German genius”. Despite this pride in his ‘superior’ nation, he seems scared of it – as though the “German genius” has created something completely out of their control. This is confirmed later in the film when a captured German tank quartermaster reveals that the tank isn’t attached to any unit, nor is there even a record of its creation. The ghost story, then, is made real.
The appearance of the Tiger, shown on screen for perhaps 3 or 4 minutes total during this 104-minute film, is heralded by a recurring Wagner motif. Wagner’s music, though, is stripped back – laid bare. It seems empty of the bravado and narcissism it carried in its “Triumph of the Will” outing. A direct criticism, it seems, of Hollywood’s glorifying of fascist aesthetics.
After several engagements, Naidyonov – observed from afar by Fedotov – cripples the Tiger, but his tank ends up too badly damaged to deliver a killing blow and it retreats from battle. This final clash coincides with the end of the war and Naidyonov, after a brief conversation, denying the final death of the Tiger, drives his T34/85 into the distance. “He’s waiting, he is. He’ll wait twenty years, fifty, maybe a hundred. Then he’ll crawl back. He must be destroyed” His words hang with us before the final scene of the film brings everything into focus. To cut to the chase, the white Tiger wasn’t a ghost, nor was it a tank – the white Tiger was fascism incarnate.
Hitler and the devil speak in an enormous sitting room. “The German people will be blamed for everything,” he says. Indeed, US blockbuster films typically contend that fascism is a German phenomenon of the past and nothing more. Germany was beaten despite overwhelming odds in their favour, says the supremacy framing Hollywood gives us. They imply unintentionally – or perhaps intentionally – that fascism is simply superior. White Tiger, in contrast to the downplaying of fascism in satires and the exaltation of fascism’s power in action films, walks its own path.
White Tiger puts everything through the lens of those who have suffered under fascism – and those who will if we don’t continue to fight it at every turn.
You can watch White Tiger for free on YouTube, where it was uploaded by the production company Mosfilm.