Russian director Alexey German Jr. announces his intentions right from the start of Paper Soldier, which takes its title from a song about a brave soldier unaware that he’s really just a toy made of paper—and who meets his demise by voluntarily stepping into a fire. The period film, set in 1961, harkens back to Russian cinema of the ‘60s. In addition to winning the Silver Lion and Best Cinematography at last year’s Venice International Film Festival, the film also stars the mesmerizing Georgian actor Merab Ninidze as a doctor whose conscience insidiously catches up with him as he works with the young cosmonauts at the Soviet Cosmodrome Baikonur. With exquisite imagery and a script co-written by German Jr. (the son of German Sr., a legendary director from the Leningrad film school) that manages to transform a poetic and philosophical meditation into a tightly paced drama, and a cast that includes the radiant Chulpan Khamatova as doctor Danya’s doctor wife, Paper Soldier deftly visualizes those dual elements of terrifying uncertainty and thrilling history that were the essence of the Soviet liberal experiment era, crystallized in the space program itself.
“Smells like human flesh,” Danya declares in the first of his hallucinations before a stranger arrives hawking a huge kitschy picture of the murderous Stalin. The film is divided up into weeks, a count down to the launch date, though the bizarre atmosphere that serves as the cosmonauts training ground feels as far away as the moon. The foggy and cold climate, the wind that blows everything in its path, is palpable. An unidentified squeaking reminiscent of the sound of children’s swings interrupts an otherwise silent background. Period music that unobtrusively plays is itself from another era. A camel appears in the distance and throughout the film like a humped visitor from a Wenders or Jarmusch flick. The familiar is seen in long shot at metaphorically strange angles, making “normal” life seem foreign—which, of course, mirrors the surreal feeling leading up to a surreal event.
At a friend’s dacha, Danya focuses his binoculars straight at the camera as if attempting to peer into a crystal ball as his buddies contemplate life after 30. Indeed, many characters meet German Jr.‘s lens head on, daring the future to come take them. And that camera is forever roving, with characters constantly moving within the frame while they talk, for no one can sit still. Philosophy is action it seems. An actor’s watch inexplicably runs fast in a race against time while Danya’s wife exasperatedly asks, “Why is everything in this country called Sputnik?” Between the Sputnik electric shavers and the Sputnik bicycles and physical ailments (“Make it respect you…Drink! Fight back,” a character advises a friend with liver problems), Paper Soldier becomes a study in the battle of society versus the body, like a Russian Diner with a high stakes political and philosophical edge. Danya believes in a world where “science and art are not for sale,” where all people are brothers, while his more pragmatic wife just wants to have children, complaining that their way of life is always about “ideas” rather than “individuals.” The personal is the political.
In one particularly harrowing scene Danya comforts a scared soldier by telling him that he can’t stop and ask questions, but just must keep going, “serving country and mankind” above oneself. That the doctor is in a desperate race to override his own conscience is less of a revelation than the realization that the only other choice both men have is to go insane—like the woman who refuses to leave a former prison camp, the only home she’s known for decades, even as it’s being burned to the ground. The Soviet Union is a wasteland between two worlds, post-Stalin and the unknown. When a passerby tries to comfort Danya by telling him that if something goes wrong at the launch “medicine is helpless” anyway, the idea that history is just a crapshoot does more harm than good for Danya’s fragile head. “Maybe what you’re doing contradicts your human nature,” offers his distinguished surgeon father—who died in Stalin’s prison camp—when Danya pays him a visit upon blacking out.
By the time the stranger with the giant Stalin portrait shows up again as the inevitable date looms large, you know things will go wrong even if history has proven otherwise. When the good doctor asks how much the picture costs he finds the price has gone up. “The world is moved by madness,” Danya delivers as parting words before taking off on a bicycle. Indeed, at a reunion 10 years after the successful launch only the actor seems to have emerged from the liberal experiment relatively unscathed, managing to make it into the movies. His watch is still broken, but this time it’s stopped.