Movie review: ‘T-34’

I recently found a reference online to a movie from Russia about the T-34 tank from World War II. Its title is no surprise: “T-34.” The film doesn’t have any actor that you’ve most likely ever seen or are familiar with, but it shows that no matter from which country, a war film is likely to be plagued by stereotypes. “T-34” is as accurate to the tanks and combat of WWII as most movies you’ll find and it poses and interesting, yet implausible, storyline (ding! ding! ding! stereotype!). While CGI plays a big role in the movie, surprisingly, you’ll also get more than a bit of decent work from the actors involved. I don’t expect to see any of them anytime soon in another film, but their work in “T-34” is worth your time – if you can stand the stereotypical saccharine ending.

‘T-34’
(2019; 139 minutes; rated TV-14; directed by Aleksey Sidorov and starring Alexander Petrov, Irina Starshenbaum and Viktor Dobronravov)

A WWII FILM WITH ALL THE STEREOTYPES, BUT WATCHABLE

It’s simple: The World War II film “T-34” is a propaganda movie for Russia today in showing the Communists fighting the Nazis. However, many war movies from many nations appear as similar heroic stories with nationalistic pride, but what elevates “T-34” to watchable status is the filmmakers’ attention to detail with the tanks and combat. The devil is always in the details and that makes this one worth watching.

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Oh, also, the actors do a quite acceptable job despite how the film staggers to a silly, contrived end. The fact that it shows nothing but heroism by the Russians isn’t anything new to war films and filmmaking of war stories.

In a final analysis, “T-34” is just another WWII fantasy story … albeit, one told from the Russian-German experience and not from the Western front against Germany or the Pacific theater operations most familiar to U.S. audiences. It’s “cool” fantasy for a WWII fan: Its penultimate battle scene is the showdown pitting individual tanks (in this movie’s case a Russian T-34/85 and a German Panzer Mark V Panther) that is so wild-west cowboy in its mentality that I’m surprised the Russians of today allowed it to be filmed.

So, “T-34’s” major shortcoming is for falling into the trap of committing the sin of every war stereotype save one: You don’t have the soldiers delivering a baby in a tank (such as in “The Big Red One” – click here for my review), but I suppose that just didn’t occur to the filmmakers, since they committed every other stereotypical sin from the honorable officer commanding the crew to improbable and impossible circumstance throughout the second half of the film.

Let me also note that there’s a *** SPOILER ALERT *** coming later in this review about the best scene in the film.

You won’t recognize any of the actors in “T-34,” but the four co-stars are worthy of working in Hollywood at any time. Well, unfortunately for them, that’s not saying much with the dreck shoveled out by Hollywood as I write this review. Still, the four main actors do a job worthy of praise and I’d enjoy seeing any one of them in another flick.

In short, “T-34” is the story of a tough, intelligent Russian tank commander in World War II. As the film opens in 1941, he is assigned to a T-34/76 tank (with the early turret shape; not the 1943 version) that takes up an ambush of the Nazis as the German army approaches Moscow in 1941. While the crew’s handling of their T-34/76 tank and its stoic, heroic commander show valor in their battle against a larger force, they finally lose against the odds and the movie picks up three years later in a concentration camp.

The tank’s commander, “Junior Lt. Nicolay Ivuskin,” is played by Alexander Petrov and at a concentration camp, he is an obstinate prisoner. You were not expected to know was alive and he won’t even give his name to his captors. Well, the German tank officer who defeated and captured him winds up at the same concentration camp and he is in charge of training SS tank cadets. He figures out Petrov’s identity and manages to get him to agree to command a T-34/85 tank in a training exercise against German tank cadets. The Russians are supposed to become fodder for the German cadets, but …

… sigh … stereotypes abound, even in foreign films …

… and, of course, it all doesn’t work out as well as the Germans had planned.

By the end of “T-34,” you’ll see all the best of John Wayne westerns with the good guy versus the bad guy in a gunfight (OK, cannonfight), but with Sam Peckinpah’s dark touch. At a key moment when the two tank commanders square off in their individual tanks, the Nazi literally throws down a glove as a challenge. Wow. The sappy stereotype doesn’t get any thicker or the analogy any clearer.

Here’s a look at the four main players in the film …

  • Alexander Petrov plays “Jr. Lt. Nicolay Ivuskin” and he’s the tough, regimented tank commander. Petrov gives an energetic effort and his only flaw is that he doesn’t have all the range of emotions necessary to have made this character great. However, that’s basically a minor criticism of a wonderful performance and you’d be hard-pressed to have found a different actor to do the same in the role. I hope Petrov’s footprint in film in the West expands with this movie.
  • With the good guy defined, you need a villain and you have Vinzenz Kiefer as “SS-Standartenführer Klaus Jäger.” Kiefer’s effort in this one nearly matches the one by Petrov. He has the part of a cruel, calculating SS officer down cold and manages to make “Jäger” memorable, but he doesn’t manage to elevate it any further. Kiefer does the good SS tank commander well and he is part of the best-acted scene of the film. Like Petrov, you’ve probably not seen any his work as an actor.
  • In the end, you find that the best acting is accomplished by Irina Starshenbaum as “Anya Yartseva.” She plays the interpreter in the concentration camp and does a superlative performance. The obsequiousness necessary from a captive in a camp just permeates the character and you know she managed to immerse herself in the character. As Starshenbaum move through the film, her character gains strength and she becomes the love interest of Petrov. Here’s a role that should be at the top of her CV and Hollywood should be beating down her door right now.
  • Viktor Dobronravov gives a really nice performance as tank driver “Stepan Vasilyonok.” He comes to embody the persona of a tank driver and just oozes the character at every turn. Here is a case of a filmmaker who manages to make sure that a character has the best amount of time on-screen: Enough to make a mark, but not that the character gets run into the ground. Dobronravov is very, very solid in this movie.

Of course, you have to endure the stereotypes of the differing personalities of the T-34’s tank crew; a member’s posting of a religious icon in the turret; the crew offering calls to God – any of which would have left them dead at the hands a Soviet political commissar.

*** SPOILER ALERT ***

The best scene in the film is at the end with the crippled Panther tank about to topple off a bridge to its final demise. Kiefer is wounded and half out of his turret’s rear escape hatch. The victorious Petrov reaches out his hand to save the vanquished as the tank begins to creak over the side of the bridge.

Kiefer’s first emotion is to not accept help from a Russian and then turns to a moment of self-preservation as he grips the other’s hand. Then, he lets go his grip that turns into not a saving grasp, but a congratulatory handshake to his opponent. He obviously decides he just can’t accept defeat in that manner and prefers death.

It is a scene worthy of praise in any war film and the two actors do a marvelous job.

*** END SPOILER ALERT ***

No matter all the flaws, here’s a war film worthy of your time and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. Just as “Fury” from the U.S. about a WWII tough tank commander committed many of the same sins, “T-34” is the same: totally watchable. But neither can ever be elevated to greatness in the pantheon of war films from “The Guns of Navarone” to “Battle of the Bulge” to “Midway” to “A Bridge Too Far” or to the pinnacle reached by “Saving Private Ryan.”

As to my biggest complaint about the film: It is the most egregious lie committed by filmmakers. They show the Russian crew in their T-34/85 tank in a German town and they don’t want to “plunder” for food. Well, the Communist forces, acting in retaliation to the brutalities inflicted on Russia by the Nazis, did massive-scale plunder and ongoing rape as they thundered across Germany (and all other conquered lands in eastern Europe).

In “T-34,” the tankmen take the high road, but history shows that the Communists took on that road on exceptionally rare occasions and for five men just escaped from a concentration camp, that would have hardly been such their attitude.

Finally, as a historical note, the T-34/76 tank used by the crew is the early model with a so-called 1942 turret design (usually designated for the caliber of its main weapon). The tank used later in the film is the upgraded model with a larger turret and 85mm cannon. The T-34/85 was the upgrade designed to battle the Germans’ “Panther” and Panzer Mark VI “Tiger” tanks that were designed because of the superiority of the T-34 over existing panzers earlier in the war.

Since there are operating restored tanks as shown in the film, I’m not sure what’s CGI (other than the shells fired by individual tanks) and what’s real. The German Panthers appear to be Russian tanks modified to look like a Mark V (just as T-34/85s were dressed up to appear as “Tigers” in “Kelly’s Heroes” with Clint Eastwood – (click here for my review). That’s how good the special effects are for the film.

T-34” wasn’t ranked at the U.S. box office because it was released here in 2019 on disc and not any theater. The film was first released in Russian in December 2018 in limited showings and then across the country in early 2019. So, since it arrived in the U.S. in 2019, I’m classifying it as 2019 film for this blog. Here are the other films from 2019 that I’ve reviewed for my blog:

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Historical accounts do not show that a Russian tank crew ever escaped from Germany, but some Russian airmen reportedly escaped via a German aircraft and this story has been told through Russian cinema, too.
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “Director and scriptwriter Aleksey Sidorov set the task ‘to tell the story of the war in such a way as to captivate the young and not cause controversy among those who still keep the Great Patriotic War in their memory.’” This comment is amusing since the story is told exactly as the Communists would portray the heroism of the Russian soldiers with the exception that if such Soviet tankmen did escape, they would have most likely been executed for being captured in the first place and then being with the Germans for so many years.
  • Media in Russia called the film “The Fast and the Furious” on tanks.
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “In the movie several tanks were filmed, including the real T-34 which was taken down during WWII. To prepare for the film, the tank was restored, including repair of the engine which was brought up to combat status. Also, the 1941 wintertime camouflage was recreated (nicknamed the ‘winter forest’).”
  • Click here for IMDb.com’s trivia page about the film (there’s not much) …

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2020.
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