Dir: Alexey German Jr. Russia. 2008. 118mins.
A fascinating premise - Russia and the first manned space programme - and some stunning visuals and period production design are sabotaged by pretentious blather in Paper Soldier, an exercise in missed opportunities. Subtitling is admittedly poor, but even given leeway, this film is a baffling misfire from German Jr (The Last Train).
Commercially, this has little potential outside its home market, where the lure of a film about Yuri Gagarin might draw some notice. However, Gagarin barely registers as a character in this piece, which focuses on the space programme’s peculiar head doctor and the two women in his life, and that won’t help word of mouth. Numbingly-frequent references to and lock-stock quotes from Chekhov make the viewer wish German Jr had gone ahead and shot Three Women rather than squandering cash in Kazakhstan on this.
“Numbingly-frequent references to and lock-stock quotes from Chekhov make the viewer wish German Jr had gone ahead and shot Three Women”
Opening shots hold out much promise. German Jr sets the scene in a bleak Kazakhstan landscape where a test flight manned by a dummy has failed. Handsome babe-magnet Daniil (Ninidze) is on hand to look rueful as a cosmodrome is built in the background. He then bids farewell to his girlfriend Vera (Sheveleva) for the space programme in Moscow.
Camerawork here - and throughout the film - is impressive and the gorgeous period recreations lead to a sense of excitement, that perhaps we’re going to see Russia’s The Right Stuff by way of The Lives Of Others. That’s far too bourgeois a prospect for German Jr, however.
On arrival in Moscow we meet Daniil’s doctor wife Nina (Khamatova), and thus begins a seemingly-endless round of Russian navel-gazing as the weeks count down to the first manned space flight. The potential astronauts vie to be the first into space, but this aspect is perplexingly shot mostly in close-up on Daniil and Vera’s faces inside the space programme’s HQ. Then there’s a weekend in a dacha with friends where Chekov comes into play in a big way andthere’s a lot of banter about the Russian intelligentsia and the bourgeoisie.
Daniil zipps back to Kazakhstan and the cosmodrome; an astronaut dies in a fire; Vera follows her husband by way of a labour camp; and all the while the increasingly-loony doctor is suffering from these terrible headaches.
Better subtitling could possibly help make all this clearer to the foreign viewer, but ultimately Paper Soldier is a bizarre way to go about telling this particular story of Russia in the wake of Stalin’s death. The seed of a good story is in there, but it does look as if German Jr was given too much leeway to indulge himself.
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Alexey German Jr