Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Alexei German Jr.: Paper Soldier - Бумажный солдат

Director: Aleksei German Ml. Writers: Aleksei German Ml. (screenplay), Vladimir Arkusha, Stars: Chulpan Khamatova, Merab Ninidze, Anastasiya Sheveleva Winner of the 2008 Silver Lion award for best director and an award for cinematography at the Venice Film Festival, Paper Soldier is set in the spring of 1961, six weeks before the launch of the first man into space. ...

All three of Aleksei Alekseevich German’s feature films are set in the past, but they examine that past from an unusual and illuminating point of view. The Last Train (Poslednii poezd, 2003) saw the Second World War through the eyes of German soldiers abandoned in the snowy Russian wastes, Garpastum (2005) the dying years of the Russian Empire through the lives of young men who were obsessive about football. German’s ambitious and absorbing new film, The Paper Soldier, is set in the spring of 1961, in the period leading up to the first manned space flight, and is formally constructed in the manner of a countdown, with intertitles and the narrator’s voice announcing “Week 6,” “Week 5,” “Week 4”… But the Baikonur cosmodrome is represented as a place of bleak, muddy melancholy, where cows, sheep and horses roam. A statuesque camel watches disdainfully as locals attempt to trade successively in a portrait of Stalin artfully framed in light bulbs (colloquially known as “Lenin’s little lamps,”—lampochki Il´icha), a tin “officers’” bath, Bulgarian skirts and Yugoslav glasses which, the seller insists, are “better than Italian ones.” It is only at the end of the film that the viewer remembers that “Iura” and “German,” hitherto nondescript among a pack of potential cosmonauts, are Gagarin and Titov and destined to enter history as the first and second men in space. Even the epoch-making flight itself happens almost unnoticed in the depth of the frame, an unremarked backdrop to a personal tragedy unfolding in the foreground.
German has spoken in interview of his interest in ‘turning my camera away from the huge metal mass’ of the space rocket and imagining the life of one of the people in the background of this great event (Arkus 48). The character he invents is Dr Daniil Pokrovskii (Dania), a doctor engaged in the physical preparation of the would-be astronauts. Dania is charming and popular but catastrophically riven: between Baikonur and Moscow; between practical work and research; between doubt and belief, between confidence and superstition (‘If I manage to ride my bike on one wheel the flight will be successful’), between his dreams of a glorious cosmic future in which ‘everything will be changed’ and ‘we, not the Americans, not the Germans’ will take the great steps in space, and his gnawing concern about the potential sacrifice of the young airmen. He is torn between his attraction to two very different women. Vera, in Baikonur, is abject, dependent, ready to ‘follow you like a tail’. Nina, his wife, in Moscow, compellingly played by Chulpan Khamatova, who has shaken off the manernost´ of some of her earlier roles, is also a doctor, clever, ironic, well-read, able to quote Blok with him as they drive home from work....

Reviewed by Julian Graffy in KinoKultura

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