"Paper Soldier": Russian Standard By Dita Rietuma

in 65th Venice International Film Festival

by Dita Rietuma

“You know — there is some kind of ‘Russian standard’. The films, which are chosen to participate in the biggest European film festivals must be existential, mysterious, bigger and stranger than life. The settings of these films must be a wild plain, the heroes — lonely souls struggling”. These words were said to me by one of the journalists working for a popular TV program in Russia. It was a joke, but with a sense of self-criticism and also criticism of the selection committees of the Venice and Cannes film festivals, which are very keen to include such kind of Russian films in the competition. (Berlin, by the way, is much cooler, I don’t remember Russian films in the main competition for years).

It is not a secret that the Venice film festival is ‘guilty’ of re-establishing the international fame of Russian art-house films — thanks to the win of The Return (Vozvrashcheniye) in 2003 made by the then debutant director Andrei Zvyagintsev. With his first step into an international festival, this director achieved much more (if we are talking about festival prizes) than his colleague Alexander Sokurov. Sokurov, one of the greatest filmmakers of Russia, is a constant participant in the competition of the Cannes film festival, but hardly ever do his brilliant films (Taurus, Moloh, Sun) get the right reaction from the professional public and the jury in Cannes. Bad luck.

The Venice International Film Festival is a luckier place for Russian films. The latest example is the winner of the Silver Lion and the prize for the best cinematography — Paper Soldier (Bumaznij Soldat) made by Aleksei German Jr. German (32) is not the newcomer to Venice — it was his third participation in Venice after Last Train (Posledny poezd) in 2003 and Garpastum in 2006. Paper Soldier tells the story of the doctor Daniel (Merab Ninidze) who works for the first Soviet cosmonaut’s troop. He is “cramped” between his wife and her lover, between Moscow and Baikonur — the cosmodrome, between his duty and his hesitation — is it legitimate to risk a human life for a nation’s superiority?

German is not so interested in his plot as much as the style, the images and atmosphere, it is easy to find in this film his admiration and dedication to the Russian cinema of the 60’s, the period of ‘warming’ which came after years of Stalinism. These were poetic and fragile films (Ijulskij dozd/The Rain of July etc.), which appeared in the Soviet Union after the end of Stalin era. These films obviously were the inspiration for German and his crew. As the actress Chulpan Khamatova, who plays the wife of the main hero beautifully, told at the press conference in Venice: “Before the start of the shooting we studied Russian films from the ’60s a lot. It was a great pleasure and a great discovery.”

Aleksei German jr. uses not only the sense of Russian poetic films from the 60’s, but also develops the style of his father, Aleksei German, the great filmmaker from the so-called “Leningrad school”. In his films (My Friend Ivan Lapshin/Moy drug Ivan Lapshin, 1984; 20 Days Without War/Dvadtsat dney bez voyny, 1976) German Sr. developed the style of storytelling, presenting complicated long sequences, with unique camera tracks. All this technique was brilliantly used for creating the sense and the absurdity of the time — Soviet history. These were very human and tragic films, masterpieces, which presented the unspoken “undercurrent” of Soviet history, films made in the Soviet time. Unfortunately, German’s film Khrustalyov, My Car! (Khrustalyov, Mashinu!, 1998), which reflected the Stalin era and was shot after the end of Soviet era, flopped when shown in the Cannes film festival’s competition — mainly due to its complexity and the inability of a western audience to connect to the language of the film.

Those who know Russian cinema will be ready to compare the cinematic language of the films My Friend Ivan Lapshin made by the father and Paper Soldier made by the son. Both of them play with the past — one with Stalin’s era in the 50’s, another with the early 60’s. Both of them present very personal stories — the love of an actress and a policeman and the ‘ménage a trois’ between two doctors of the cosmonauts and the young women in Kazakhstan. And both of them uses the plot as an excuse to create very rich cinematic texture, with very long shots and a the complicated movements of the characters inside these shots.

Western audiences — not used to the absence of quality goods, shoes, clothes etc. — might be confused of the dialogues in some of the episodes of Paper Soldier. Why do these doctors, who are working to prepare the first flight in the space, talk about some Yugoslavian boots or watches? Why are they sometimes so cynical about the young guys who are ready to participate in the first flight in space, ignoring the risk, ignoring the fact that they are called “Laika” like the first dog, which was sent to space by Russians? German draws very precise signs of the time — underlining the value of the things and the absence of the value of men’s lives in ex-Stalinist Russia, which tries to surprise the world with the conquest of space.

German Jr.’s film belongs only partly to the “Russian standard” — the Russian export films for foreign festivals. A worse example is Mikheil Kalatozishvili’s Wild Field (Dikoe pole) (in this year’s Venice Horizons section), which uses a lot of clichés of ‘savage Russia’. By the way, the main hero of this film also is doctor, as in German’s Paper Soldier. “From the times of Chekhov, doctors have been the symbol of the intelligentsia, the intellectuals of Russia,” explained German Jr. in Venice. His film about dreams, guilt and insecurity of Russian intellectuals is not only a work dedicated to Chekhov and space, but also to great skills of filmmaking and the ability to create the atmosphere and space beyond the story line.