Paper Soldier, dealing as it does with the early days of the Soviet space program (post-Sputnik, pre-manned flight) stands as a sort of interesting companion film to Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff, which told the American side of the story. Where Kaufman drew inspiration from the graceful compositions and elegiac tone of John Ford, Russian director Aleksei German Jr. looks to Tarkovsky for inspiration in this, his third feature (following The Last Train and Garpastum).
Structured in the form of a countdown, the film ticks of the six weeks leading to Gagarin's epoch-making first flight, and dealing particularly with the cosmonaut selection process, the film focuses on the character of Dr. Daniel Pokrovsky, an overwrought doctor with a weak heart and a complicated romantic life. Since Pokrovsky is the son of a famous surgeon, in whose shadow he lives, and the film's director is the son of Aleksei German Sr., director of My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1984) and Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998), himself the son of writer Yuri German, the paternal theme seems likely to have autobiographical inspiration.
While the focus is more on the testing and selection of space travelers, with the actual launch relegated to the background of the film's climax, the background of anticipation leading up to the final blast-off provides an underpinning of suspense to Pokrovsky's love life, and there's much desperate hope that this first manned space flight will somehow launch a new age, that everything will be different, and even that the shadow of the Stalin era will finally be lifted. But these hopes are at war with Pokrovsky's profound anxiety and guilt about having to help choose the man who will by fired at the sky in a rocket, risking death. A horrific accident in a compression chamber emphasizes the risks involved...
Along with a Tarkovskian tendency towards long, roving takes, soaking up the misty atmosphere of the Khazakstani locations where the Soviet space program is laid, German has clearly absorbed some Miklós Jancsó and Fellini, circa 8 1/2, his fluid camera following one figure, then another, relay-fashion, with compositions constantly refashioned by the moving bodies, and even cheeky addresses to the camera, as when the protagonist sits down, close-up, centre of the widescreen frame, and peers directly into our midst through his binoculars. The film may be solemn, with damp plains and nervous women quoting Chekhov, but it is not without a certain glum twinkle.