Director: Aleksey Sidorov
Writer: Aleksey Sidorov
Starring: Alexander Petrov, Vinzenz Kiefer, Viktor Dobronravov, Irina Starshenbaum
Where is your fighting spirit?
There are plenty of war movies, and more specifically, there are plenty of World War II movies. What there isn’t enough of, in my opinion, is movies about tank battles. There have been some really good ones, like The Beast or Kelly’s Heroes or Fury, but I can never say no to another one.
There’s something about that kind of warfare that feels like a strange combination of modern weaponry and old-school battle techniques. Tanks lumber and the crews inside them have to work in perfect harmony to succeed. It reminds me of old naval battles between tall ships. So obviously, I was the perfect mark for T-34.
This war film is currently the second highest grossing Russian-made film of all time. I can see why it was such a crowd pleaser. There’s no easier way to make your audience cheer for your characters than by having them face literal Nazis.
We meet Nikolay Ivushkin (Alexander Petrov) in 1941 and T-34 gets right into the action. There’s a fun cold open where Nikolay and another soldier escape an enemy tank in a truck. This section introduces us to the main gimmick of the action scenes, which is writer/director Aleksey Sidorov’s love for slow motion. We get to see shells fired in slow motion, shells ricocheting off of metal in slow motion, shrapnel flying around the inside of a tank in slow motion. The first few times it happened, I started bracing myself to get tired of it quickly. Sidorov knows exactly when to pull back and let the action play out normally. He also knows when to slow it down and force our attention on something really cool or brutal or important.
Nikolay gets a field promotion to tank commander, and his mission is to hold off a German advancement through a practically abandoned village. We get to this battle quickly, with the clichéd “new leader has to earn his soldiers’ respect” happening across a few exchanges of words. I expected more build up, more attention to their planning, and more focus on the other soldiers on Nikolay’s team. I found out pretty quickly why that didn’t happen.
The actual fight was impressively shot. It was easily the best use of the slow motion and CGI in the entire film. We get to see Nikolay’s smarts and his grit as a leader, we get to see Stepan (Viktor Dobronravov) the tank driver’s skills in action, and we meet Klaus Jäger (Vinzenz Kiefer), the German tank commander and the villain of the film. Nikolay’s single, battle-worn T-34 tank almost takes out Jäger’s entire team — and Jäger himself — but he and Stepan are captured.
This is when the movie completely threw me for a loop in a good way! I didn’t know what to expect when T-34 jumps to 1944, and Nikolay is still a prisoner. I got excited, anticipating where the movie would take me, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Jäger needs to train new Nazi divisions on fighting tanks. He comes to the camp to recruit Nikolay into being the head fish in the barrel. I loved this. Suddenly I’m getting a tank movie and a prison escape movie! There was also a little bit of The Longest Yard in there, what with the war games dynamic. Nikolay is given a T-34 and his choice of a crew — he picks Stepan and two new-comers, Serafim (Yuriy Borisov) and Volchok (Anton Bogdanov) — and he immediately goes about making a plan for escape.
Petrov and Kiefer work well against each other. They only get a few scenes where they’re actually, physically opposite each other. They have the perfect faces and eyes to convey their relationship even when they’re just staring into a viewfinder or peering out of the top of a tank. Irinia Starshenbaum plays Anya, a woman in the concentration camp that Jäger uses to translate for him, and Nikolay falls in love with. They’re cute together — Petrov has a young David-Keith-meets-young-Ewan-McGregor look to him — but their relationship feels like more of an afterthought than an integral piece of the story.
T-34 is a good-looking movie too. The CGI is used stylishly and effectively, only really getting wonky in a couple of scenes. Aside from the slow-motion shots, Sidorov isn’t afraid to mix things up a bit. The shots inside the tank during the battles have a cool, off-kilter, Jean-Pierre Jeunet vibe to them. We even get a quick, black-and-white POV shot from a camera filming the training exercise.
The action was exactly what I was looking for in a movie like this. There’s even a scene where enemy tanks are right beside each other and racing to get their turrets turned before the other one can. That’s the kind of shit I love.
At almost two hours, the movie feels a little flabby in some spots — they spend a little too much time camping out and stealing food — but there are small moments throughout that make it work. A moment later in the film, where Nikolay has to decide which member of his team has to go on a likely suicide mission, is short and effective. I also loved the method they used to get live shells for the training exercise. It gave their escape attempt a more profound meaning.
While I don’t think T-34 would do much to change the mind of someone who dislikes war movies, its well-shot action scenes make it a must for anyone who’s a fan of the genre.