The New Positive Hero: Masculinity and Genre in Recent Russian Cinema
Symposium 2009

Paper Soldier

[Bumazhnyi soldat]

Russia, 2008
Color, 110 minutes
Russian with English subtitles
Director: Aleksei German, Jr.
Screenplay: Aleksei German, Jr; with Vladimir Arkusha and Iuliia Glezarova
Cinematography: Maksim Drozdov, Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev
Art Direction: El'dar Karkhalev, Sergei Kokovkin; with Sergei Rakutov
Music: Fedor Sofronov
Cast: Merab Ninidze, Chulpan Khamatova, Anastasiia Sheveleva, Kirill Ul'ianov, Romual'd Makarenko, Ramil' Salakhutdinov, Valentin Kuznetsov
Producers: Artem Vasil'ev, Sergei Shumakov, Evgenii Lebedev, Natal'ia Demidova
Production: Phenomen-Films and “Russia” TV Channel

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. The protagonist, Daniil Pokrovskii, is a doctor with the Baikonur (Kazakhstan) space program; both he and his wife are responsible for training and monitoring candidates for the flight (the human laikas, as they are unofficially referred to). The voice-over provides the countdown—to the liftoff and to Daniil’s death from heart failure. The two events are simultaneous, but the camera stays with the collapsed doctor and two wailing women—Daniil’s Moscow wife (Chulpan Khamatova) and his local lover (Anastasiia Sheveleva). In the background there is a flash of light in the murky sky. For the first time in the film, the camera abandons its eye-line level, as if fulfilling the dream voiced at the beginning: it is now possible to “see our planet from a distance.” But the earth is just a tracking shot of the same desolate terrain that dominates the rest of the film, and to give the viewer this vantage point the camera cranes up, leaving the dead man and the two widows off-screen.

It would be inaccurate, however, to assume that the film sacrifices the Big Mythology of space exploration for individual humanism or that it is all about the debunking of the second most important event at the foundation of Russia’s contemporary identity (the first being the victory in WWII). Like German Jr.’s previous two films, Paper Soldier is an artist’s unconventional view of the relationship between Big history and its actors. To quote the director himself: “demythologizing always boils down to a hero who was discarded (otbrakovan) by history.” German Jr.’s aesthetic model may be 1960s Soviet cinema—Khutsiev, Muratova, Romm’s Nine Days of One Year. But where the 1960s contemplated Man and Utopia, German shows us Utopia in Men: distracted, unfocused looks; fragments of phrases. The Future is about to happen. People are tortured by bad dreams that they can’t remember, and head and heart ache. Decisions and movements seem accidental, not a matter of choice. Events are driven by an implacable but amorphous force. Daniil is tortured by his faith in the ability of this flight to give people hope and change things, and the great fear that it will not—and at the terrible cost of the young pilots’ lives.

Drozdov’s and Khamidkhodzhaev’s widescreen cinematography in combination with a telephoto lens creates an epic but flat image. The background is often blurry, while figures in the foreground are rarely shot conventionally, as if the camera cannot capture the total picture: constant refocusing; figures with their back to the camera or, conversely, staring directly at the camera (at us?). Another stylistic feature is an extremely limited color palette. The only colors that stand out and create their own visual story are shades of red. Red is fire: the burning down of barracks in a former Stalin camp and the flames in the testing hyperbaric chamber where a terrified young candidate for the mission is burned alive. The suits of Iuri, cosmonaut number one, and his “understudy” are graphically matched with the coat of another woman who is ready to follow Daniil “like a dog’s tail.”

So, perhaps at its core Paper Soldier is a male melodrama. Love for utopia, love for fellow man, love for science, and love for a woman—this is simply too much for a human heart. In an interview, German claims that his hero is a weak man crushed by a great era: he is part of an historic event, he is deeply loved by two women, yet profoundly unhappy. This tortured figure is, of course, a staple of Russian cultural mythology: the superfluous man from Turgenev to Chekhov (who is quoted at length in the film). It is fitting that Merab Ninidze (Daniil), a Georgian actor now living in Austria, had his acting debut in Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance, where he played the grandson of the dictator Varlam. Unable to live with the knowledge of his grandfather’s crimes and his father’s lies, he commits suicide.

The title of the film comes from Bulat Okudzhava’s 1959 song about a paper soldier who wanted to change the world to make everyone happy and burned up in the fire of that change. Does German suggest the soldier burned for nothing?

Aleksei German Jr.

Aleksei German Jr. was born in 1976 in a cinematic family: his father, Aleksei German, is one of the most renowned Russian film directors and his mother is a screenwriter. German-Jr. studied at the St-Petersburg Academy of Theatrical Art (SPGATI). In 1996 he was accepted into the Film Directing Department at the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK) in Moscow, where he worked in the workshops of Sergei Solov'ev and Valerii Rubinchik. He graduated VGIK in 2001 and his diploma film, Little Fools, was screened at several major film festivals. German’s three feature films won multiple awards at Russian and international film festivals, including the Amnesty International Award for The Last Train at the Rotterdam International Film Festival.


2008 Paper Soldier
2005 Garpastum
2003 Last Train
2001 Little Fools (short; diploma film)
1999 Large Autumn (short)
1998 The Banner (short)


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