Merab Ninidze, Chulpan Khamatova, Anastasya Sheveleva / Fiction / Russian
A lyrical and dynamic portrait of the dramas and sacrifices of the Soviet space race.
In both its subject matter and visual style, Alexey German Jnr's dreamy, volatile epic revisits the post-Stalinist Soviet Union of the 1960s. Gorgeous widescreen compositions and a blend of nervy realism with grandiose romanticism pay tribute to filmmakers who used the opportunity of the Thaw to renew the language of their national cinema: Andrei Tarkovsky, Marlen Khutsiev, Kira Muratova. The story of Paper Soldier also combines the epic with the intimate. It's 1961, and the Soviet space race is about to take flight. Our protagonist – as in German's WWII-set debut The Last Train (EIFF 2004) – is a doctor committed to serve those who risk life and limb for the glory (or otherwise) of their nation, in this case the trainee cosmonauts jostling for their chance to make interstellar history. But Daniel (beautifully played by the brooding Georgian actor Merab Ninidze) is no selfless philanthropist: he's a weak, conflicted character, as torn between his wife and mistress as he is between pride and dread for the young would-be cosmonauts in his care (the vulnerable, combustible "paper" fighters of the title). Positioned amid the debris of momentous political choices, Danya represents the human mess that history discards: he is the intellectual doubter doomed to see both sides of every act and statement. German's film is a solemn, questioning, achingly compassionate study of nationhood, sacrifice and reckless ambition, which finds in the strange frozen wastelands of Kazakhstan a fitting visual allegory for the doubt and cynicism suffered by its characters. This young director (son of Soviet film pioneer Aleksei German, grandson of writer Yuri German) has crafted a melancholy, anti-heroic Eastern counter to such celebratory US space epics as The Right Stuff (1983), Apollo 13 (1995) and In the Shadow of the Moon (EIFF 2007). The macho dynamism and idealistic fervour of the American space race are replaced here by anxiety and distraction: bodies are weak and sickly, conversations drift in and out of focus, questions hang unanswered. The effort to launch a manned spacecraft here represents not a positive sally into the technological future, but a desperate thrust to escape the failed human colony on Earth: more symbolic suicide than hopeful advance. Yet German's film also acknowledges the beauty of the idea: its space cadets are eager, giving, wideeyed hopefuls, and elsewhere love, sex and the hope of conception represent the tenacious human commitment to a future, however uncertain.
#1 / Wednesday 24 June, 2009 / 14:56 GMTI found this movie to be an interesting approach of the Russians' ambition to conquer space, however, too melodramatic and full of "old Soviet perfume". It was more interesting to explore the science of space, that took a lot of work for the Russians, rather than banal cliches of husband and wife's conflict. Maybe I expected more wit from the director, more sadness and more happiness. Overall, a good movie, but not really focused on a message.
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