ND/NF: Space and whole lot of dirt, in Paper Soldier

Chulpan Khamatova and Anastya Sheveleva in Paper Soldier

Paper Soldier, a Russian film from director Alexey German Jr., takes a street-level approach – or more specifically a gray, damp, muddy earth-level approach, to the Russian half of the space race, in an attempt to strip this proud moment in Soviet history of all its glory. While it succeeds in this effort, the film falters a bit with the more human side of  story and ends up feeling a little bit like a history lesson.

Forget about any uptempo cosmonaut-training montages or gorgeous outer space vistas. Instead, Paper Soldier is tightly focused on the psyche of Daniel (Merab Ninidze), a physician involved in the space project who grows increasingly uncomfortable risking human life for the sake of science. Daniel’s also got a wife (a fellow doctor played by Chulpan Khamatova) at the training facility in Moscow and a girlfriend at the launch site (Anastasya Shevaleva) in Kazakhstan, and in time these personal and philosophical conflicts take a toll on him.

While Daniel’s story personally left me a little cold, German’s film does succeed in bringing to life a forgotten era in Soviet history. It’s 1961, Stalin in dead, and when one character stumbles upon a decrepit former prison camp being destroyed by Soviet troops, the commanding officer explains that they are literally, “burning the remains of the Stalinist past.” Daniel’s intellectual friends speak hopefully of a new, more liberal USSR, in which sending the first man into space is a priority, and yet Daniel is still haunted by recurring nightmares and splitting headaches.

Daniel’s conflict and ultimate sacrifice in the name of Soviet progress, coupled with all those bleak landscapes, make clear how director German feels about the “kindler, gentler Soviet Union,” and it’s this unique historical perspective that keeps the film interesting despite it’s flaws. Just don’t go in expecting The Right Stuff.

-Tim Young, ND/NF New Voice

Tim Young also writes for I Heard Different.

Buy tickets to Paper Soldier: Sat Mar 28: 6 (MoMA) or Thu Mar 31: 9 (FSLC)

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