Issue 24 (2009)

Aleksei German Jr: The Paper Soldier (Bumazhnyi soldat 2008)

reviewed by Julian Graffy © 2009

papersoldierAll 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.

papersoldierGerman 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.

Да, я возьму тебя с собою
И вознесу тебя туда,
Где кажется земля звездою,
Землею кажется звезда.
Yes, I’ll take you with me
And raise you up where
The earth seems like a star
And the star seems like earth. (Blok 60-61)
But she is also increasingly desperate about her failure to conceive a child.

As well as being bright and charming, Dania is also anxious: he has just brilliantly defended his candidate’s dissertation at the level of a doctorate and has been congratulated and kissed by his supervisor, Rudakov, but he needs repeated reassurance from Nina that his work is really worth anything at all, and he has a complex about not living up to the achievements of his dead father, of whom he is repeatedly reminded, and who, unlike him, was a surgeon, “the best in Moscow,” “the best in Russia.” He is racked by ill health, often coughing and complaining of headaches or chest pains, chronically tired, and lacking in will. He feels isolated and is prone to unpredictable japes. In the Moscow hospital he borrows Rudakov’s bicycle and rides around on it to the annoyance of the old man, but by the end of the film this bicycle ride has become a harbinger of death. He is, in short, Okudzhava’s paper soldier (the poem was written in 1959):

Он переделать мир хотел,
чтоб был счастливым каждый,
а сам на ниточке висел:
ведь был солдат бумажный.
He wanted to change the world
So that everyone could be happy,
But he himself was hanging by a thread,
For he was a paper soldier.

In the Moscow sequences, which are set in Weeks 5 and 4, German opens the aperture on his camera and provides a broader analysis of the Thaw intelligentsia, particularly in Week 4, in which, following the practice of the time, Dania goes out to a snowy dacha to celebrate the defence of his dissertation with a picnic of vodka and shashlyk. Though he is surrounded by old friends, the narrator tells us that “in his soul he felt discomfort.” This unease is also apparent in his friends, one of whom complains to camera about his liver, while another, Garik, later insists in terror that his “heart has stopped beating.” His actor friend, Arkhangel´skii, who is the one who sings Okudzhava to guitar (“The Paper Soldier,” but also the “Sentimental March” [Sentimental´nyi marsh], which figures in Marlen Khutsiev’s film The Il´ich Gate [Zastava Il´icha, also known as I Am Twenty / Mne dvadtsat´ let, 1964]) complains that his watch is going too fast and picks an argument with Dania about the very point of flights into the cosmos. The men argue too, as was their wont, about the very concept of the intelligentsia. Garik calls the modern Russian intelligentsia, a “weak and vulnerable creature which is capable only of lamenting and getting upset,” comparing it to a “beautiful, meaningless vase,” leading Dania to wonder why, unlike their forefathers, his generation does not know why it is living: “We are all somehow sympathetic but meaningless… Why do we chat so much? Feel such a desire to reflect, discuss, to run away from important, necessary work?”

papersoldierHere, and also in the later scenes in Baikonur, to which the film now returns, German subtly expands and deepens his picture of an epoch. The official rhetoric surrounding the successes in space is there, in the background: a radio announcer’s stentorian voice hymns the Soviet achievement, while Iura and German practise the speeches about their gratitude to the leaders and the proletariat that they will have to recite on a successful landing, but Nina mockingly asks why everything now must be a sputnik, “the sputnik electric razor, the sputnik bicycle…” A Kazakh woman plays rock and roll on her transistor radio, while a young soldier, in an aside that will bring a smile of recognition to westerners who visited Russia in the 1960s, complains to Dania about the “rotten cheese” (tukhlyi syr) on sale in the local shop, Rokfor nazyvaetsia (“It’s called Roquefort”). “It’s supposed to be like that,” says Dania. “Try it, you may even like it.”

But the Thaw years are also emphatically shown as still living in the shadow of the Soviet past. The old man with the Stalin portrait refers to him as a “great leader” and puts up his price as the weeks go by. Even at the end of the film Garik still refers to himself as a Leninist, though Nina calls Lenin a bloodsucker and a German spy. Both Dania’s parents and Nina’s father were arrested and died in the camps and Vera’s mother was sent out to Kazakhstan into exile. When Nina comes out to Baikonur in Week 2 she wanders into a scene of horror as the decrepit huts of a ‘camp for the wives of traitors to the motherland’ are torched as an “undesirable reminder of the errors of the past,” and bullets fly around her as the dogs that now live there are shot. In Baikonur, as in Moscow, illness and anxiety are rife. The young would-be cosmonauts suffer from coughs, sickness and nightmares. One of their number, Valentin, knows that they are referred to, with bitter humor, as “Laiki,” and he does indeed follow the fate of the first dog in space, burned to death in an enclosed chamber in an experiment that goes tragically, stupidly wrong. Dania himself dies of a heart attack just as Iura’s rocket leaves the earth, provoking animal moans of grief from Nina. Even Iura, the one person in the film who does not believe in fate and is not persecuted by doubt, but who still says “Spasibo, Gospodi” (“Thank you, Lord”) on landing, is revealed (he too takes a bike ride before the flight) to be Dania’s doomed double, dead by the time of the film’s epilogue.

papersoldierGerman’s evocation of the mid-Thaw years makes nods in the direction of many of the key films of the late Soviet period. “A Sentimental March,” from The Il´ich Gate is sung at a picnic with shashlyk and banter that evokes both Khutsiev’s July Rain (Iiul´skii dozhd´, 1966) and, with its bow and arrow, a similar scene of food and conversation at the start of Kira Muratova’s Long Farewells (Dolgie provody, 1971). Merab Ninidze, who plays Dania with charisma and mournful grace, was Tornike, the son of the Georgian family at the centre of Tengiz Abuladze’s historical excavation Repentance (Monanieba, Pokaianie, 1984). Dania refers to his childhood in Tbilisi and speaks Georgian in the dream sequence in which he is reunited with his dead parents. This is just one of the several links to Georgian culture in the film, ranging from songs quietly sung on the soundtrack, to Okudzhava himself, and to a small volume of Pasternak’s translations of the nineteenth-century Georgian poet Nikolai Baratashvili which Iura lends to another of the young men and recovers just before his flight. Daniil Pokrovskii is not a Georgian name, and, according to Andrei Plakhov, the character was originally imagined as a Jew, but the pervasiveness of the Georgian line is perhaps a subtle and timely reminder of the multinational Soviet past and of the contributions of Georgians to Soviet culture (Plakhov 67).

But the most striking intertextual conversation would seem to be with Aleksei Iur´evich German’s My Friend Ivan Lapshin (Moi drug Ivan Lapshin, 1979-84). German senior has famously said that the centre of gravity for him in making Lapshin was “the time itself. That’s what we made the film about” (Lipkov 219). The critic and editor of Seans magazine, Liubov´ Arkus, in her interview with German Jr, astutely describes The Paper Soldier as about “the subconscious of an epoch” (Arkus 52). There are many striking formal and plot links between the two films. Both end with a sequence set years later than the main events, and both have a narrator. Both make extensive use of snatches of peripheral dialogue or scenes in which a number of characters are talking at once. Both have unhappy central love affairs: in Lapshin, as Adashova tells the title character, “You love me, I love Khanin and Khanin couldn’t care less.” In The Paper Soldier Nina, Vera and a minor character called Ania all love Dania, but he cannot respond adequately to any of them. In both there are portraits of Stalin and raids by officers of the state on huts occupied by the state’s enemies. Both use music (marches in Lapshin, Okudzhava’s songs in The Paper Soldier) to evoke an epoch, as well as the phrases used at the time to express confidence in scientific and social progress. In Lapshin there is a slogan from the Russian biologist and plant scientist Ivan Michurin “We should not wait for favours from nature, our task is to take them from her ourselves,” and Lapshin and others repeatedly insist: “We’ll clear the land, plant an orchard—and still have time to take a walk in that orchard.” In The Paper Soldier, where the landscapes are as barren as they were in Lapshin, Dania, reminded that it is only eight years since the death of Stalin, insists that in another eight years the Soviets will build their first base on the moon, and that by the end of the century enormous liners will fly on to Jupiter. Both films also use as their leading metaphor of the anxieties of an epoch the absolute pervasiveness of illness. Dania, his wife, his friends, the trainee astronauts, even minor characters such as the soldier responsible for the destruction of the camp, are continually coughing and fretting about their health.[1]

papersoldierAnd both of these films refer more than once to Chekhov in their attempt to understand their introspective, dream-bound, doomed heroes. The arrivals and partings, the provincial boredom and the unrequited loves in Lapshin all have their parallels in Chekhov’s work and Okoshkin’s repeated senseless refrain “Au revoir. Reservoir, Samovar” inevitably suggests Chebutykin in Three Sisters. At the end of the film Adashova even protests that she is not a “Chekhovian young lady” (chekhovskaia baryshnia). Chekhov is even more explicitly present in The Paper Soldier. At the first picnic Arkhangel´skii refers to the Three Sisters, only for Nina to ask pointedly how they might have fared under Stalin. And when Garik disclaims the term intelligentsia with the words “we are above these abstractions” (My vyshe chem eti uslovnosti), he inevitably recalls Petia Trofimov’s equally absurd “we are above love” (My vyshe liubvi) in The Cherry Orchard.

But there are also significant differences between the two films, suggesting the ways in which the epochs in which they are set were themselves different. They also reveal a different approach to the very practice, the what and the how of making films set in the past, a difference which illuminates the differing cinematic priorities and possibilities of the times in which they are made.

papersoldierIf the heroes of the earlier film were employed in the imposition of Soviet law, and looked back to the Civil War for their inspiration, mention in The Paper Soldier of the ‘commissars in dusty helmets’ of Okudzhava’s “Sentimental March”cannot mask a mood of greater doubt and etiolating passivity. The narrator of The Paper Soldier was not a direct participant in the events he describes, loosening the emotional link to the past. The Paper Soldier is also made in color and not in the black and white of Lapshin (and The Last Train.) German has spoken interestingly about this to Liubov´Arkus, insisting that if he had wanted to make a film about history he would have had to use black and white, but that his different intention, which involved paying far more attention to the inner life of his central characters and including elements of a more developed love triangle, led him to color and to an approach which he describes as “synthetic impressionism” (Arkus 52).

The film’s coda is set in the autumn of 1971. In the end sequences of Lapshin, the narrator figure clung to the dreams of his childhood, though his optimism was belied by what the viewer could see behind him. The ending of The Paper Soldier is suffused with failure, loss and mourning. In the intervening years the Thaw has ended: 1968 alone had seen the death of Gagarin in a freak accident and the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the fraternal troops of the Warsaw Pact. Dania’s friends are having another picnic, but Dania is not the only one who is missing. David, Nina’s gynecologist, has hanged himself. Nina herself has been ill and has had three operations. The friend who complained of his liver ten years ago has now been left by his wife. The actor Arkhangel´skii, who had wanted to play Pushkin, has had to content himself with playing Generals and Marshals. (Valentin, the boy astronaut who died in the experiment, had been convinced that he would end up a Marshal). The statue of Gagarin made by the sculptor Prokopov is dismissed by Vera as somehow lifeless.

Misha, almost silent in 1961, has found his voice. He announces that he is emigrating:

I’m going and that’s it. I’ve had enough. There will be nothing here. Sometimes I feel that we ourselves invented that epoch. We then felt that we could make a few steps and everything would turn out fine, but nothing turned out fine...

At the very end of the film the Chekhovian note returns. Nina sees a dark young man riding a bicycle and for a split second imagines that it is Dania. Vera attempts to console her with Sonia’s final words of hope to Vania at the end of Uncle Vania. Nina takes up the refrain… but neither can quite remember the words and there is no ‘sky set in diamonds’ and no sounds of angels.

According to Andrei Plakhov, The Paper Soldier is not so much a reconstruction of history as a reconstruction of “the romantic legend of the shestidesiatniki (the men of the ‘60s)” (Plakhov 66). German himself, responding to Liubov´ Arkus, describes it as follows:

Despite the fact that the film announces 1961, all the same this story is about us and our time. For me the past is only an excuse. And although, I shan’t conceal it, it was very flattering to hear from you about the subconscious of an epoch, I nevertheless consider that the film is not about the past. For me the main thing was to transmit the sensation of endless solitude in which we all exist, one way or another. And for me this film is above all about the impossibility of making a step. (Arkus 52)

The Paper Soldier won two prizes at last year’s Venice Film Festival, the Silver Lion for best direction, and another prize for the cinematographers, Maksim Drozdov and Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev, who render German’s vision with such compelling, sad poetry. It is a remarkable achievement and it burns away in your memory.

Julian Graffy
University College London

Comment on this review via the LJ Forum


1]The crucial role of the metaphor of illness in My Friend Ivan Lapshin was first noted in a brilliant article by the Russian critic Oleg Kovalov (1989). Kovalov has a small acting part in The Paper Soldier.

Works Cited

Arkus, Liubov’, “Besplodnye usiliia liubvi k Otechestvu” (interview with Aleksei German). Seans, 35-36 (2008): 48-52.
Blok, Aleksandr ‘Demon’ (1910), in his Sobranie sochinenii v vos´mi tomakh, Moscow-Leningrad, 1960-1963, 3, 1960, pp. 60-61.
Kovalov, Oleg, “Byl´ pro to, kak lisa petukha s´´ela,” Iskusstvo kino 6 (1989): 4-25.
Lipkov, A., “Proverka... na dorogakh,” Novyi mir 2 (1987): 202-25.
Plakhov, Andrei, “Kosmos kak metafora,” Iskusstvo kino, 11 (2008): 65-67.

The Paper Soldier, Russia, 2008
Colour, 114 minutes
Director: Aleksei German
Scriptwriter: Aleksei Alekseevich German, with the participation of Vladimir Arkusha, Iuliia Glezarova
Cinematography: Maksim Drozdov, Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev
Art Direction: El´dar Karkhaliev, Sergei Kokovkin, with the participation of Sergei Rakutov
Music: Fedor Sofronov            
Cast: Merab Ninidze, Chulpan Khamatova, Anastasiia Sheveleva, Kirill Ul´ianov, Mikhail Gendelev, Al´bert Makarov, Valentin Kuznetsov, Fedor Lavrov
Producers: Artem Vasil´ev, Sergei Shumakov
Production: Phenomen Films, Telekanal Rossiia, with the support of the Sluzhba kinematografii Ministerstva kul´tury Rossiiskoi Federatsii, with the participation of Kinostudiia Lenfil´m, with the support of the Hubert Bals Fund of the Rotterdam International Film Festival

Aleksei German Jr: The Paper Soldier (Bumazhnyi soldat 2008)

reviewed by Julian Graffy © 2009

Updated: 31 Mar 09