A Hazy History

Paper SoldierGeorgian actor Merab Ninidze plays a doctor on the support staff of the Soviet space program.
There's something puzzling about Alexei German Jr.'s latest film "Paper Soldier" (Bumazhny Soldat). Like the hazy winter atmosphere in which much of its action takes place, there's something equally hazy and undefined about the emotions involved in its story Ч something that, characteristic of the director's previous two films, certainly looks intentional.

Like those two works Ч his debut, the World War II film "The Last Train" told from the German side, and its successor "Garpastum," which caught the uncertain atmosphere of pre-World War I St. Petersburg Ч "Paper Soldier" is also historical, albeit from a more recent time.

The film, which takes its title from the name of a song by legendary Soviet bard Bulat Okudzhava, goes back to the relative idealism of the 1960s, particularly in relation to the worried atmosphere before the Soviet Union's first manned space flight by Yury Gagarin. The central hero, Daniil Pokrovsky, played by Georgian actor Merab Ninidze, is a doctor in the support program that is preparing the space flight, meaning that most of the action takes place on the bare wastes of the Kazakh steppe, with periodic scenes of the doctor's return home to a dacha just outside Moscow.

It's in the latter location that the film's emotional core evolves, in the form of a love triangle involving two women: Pokrovsky's wife, played superlatively by Chulpan Khamatova, and her rival, played no less impressively by Anastasya Sheveleva.

In contrast, Ninidze's role seems restrained Ц he's an individual to whom things seem to happen, rather than being an initiator himself. Elliptical might be the best way of describing the director's style. Life certainly revolves around the central characters, but, as in many of Chekhov's works, there isn't the sense that it's really driven by plot. The scenes at the Moscow dacha recall that playwright's style, as friends congregate, moods rise and fall and resolutions remain hanging in the air.

That may seem a strange contrast with the historical story accompanying it, but German Jr. hardly presses that potentially epic note. In fact, the scenes on the snowy Kazakh steppe do not seem to be part of a heroic tale Ч instead, they create a confusingly organized picture whose story line eventually leads to the successful space launch. "The Last Train" had a similarly oblique view on the closing days of World War II, although there the ending was tragic and the film's hero was a very solitary one.

Perhaps most impressive even beyond cast performances are the film's visual elements, for which the two cinematographers, Alisher Khamidhodjaev and Maxim Drozdov, won the category prize at September's Venice film festival (German Jr. himself came away with the best director award, itself no mean feat). The risk is that such a style either engrosses a receptive viewer completely or eventually becomes close to tedious Ц and on that score, I'm still not sure where my verdict lies.

The wider of context of German Jr.'s work is no less interesting, particularly in aesthetic terms. The director's father is one of Russia's greatest directors of the last 40 years, a Soviet nonconformist who made some of the most critically lauded films of that period, and some stylistic connections with his son's work are evident.

There are hints at the style of another canonical director as well, Andrei Tarkovsky, particularly in the dacha scenes. And to top it off, some of the slight absurdity of the film's humor looks like a loose tribute to Odessan filmmaker Kira Muratova.

That's an impressive trio of allegiances. Whether the brew quite comes together is another matter.