It’s 1961 and Danya (Merab Ninidze), a medical officer in the Soviet Army, is serving in Kazakhstan, working with the first ever group of cosmonauts. He’s a married man, but still he can’t help himself from getting involved with the young Vera (Anastasiya Sheveleva). Back in Moscow and the arms of his wife, Nina (Chulpan Khamatova), Pokrovsky is torn between his friendship with the idealistic space cadets, and the knowledge that these men are expected to sacrifice their own lives for the nation. Yet, when Nina demands that he leaves his job, because it is immoral to risk the lives of humans, he decides to leave her instead. Pokrovsky goes back to Vera, the space program and his own impending doom.

2.5
Space race bogs down in the muddy fields of Kazakhstan.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: With Paper Soldiers, Russian writer-director Aleksei German Jr. says he set out to expose the myths surrounding the Soviet Union’s feat in sending the first man into space in 1961.

Does he succeed? Well, to a point. The cosmonauts’ understandable doubts and fears – along with their loyalty in serving their country – are on display as they’re shown training for the mission in Moscow and at the desolate launch site in Kazakhstan.

But these brave men are peripheral characters to the film’s primary focus on Danya (Merab Ninidze), the space program’s leading physician. Danya has a beautiful wife Nina (Chulpan Khamatova), a fellow doctor who works with him in Moscow, and a mistress, Vera, (Anastasya Sheveleva) at the Cosmodrome.

Danya is an idealist who’s plagued with nightmares, headaches and hallucinations – not to mention his romantic entanglements. The ponderous narrative features seemingly endless discussions about the evils of Stalin, the roles of the intelligentsia and the bourgeoisie, and revolutionary values, peppered with allusions to Chekhov and other Russian writers.

After a row with Danya, Nina sets off for Kazakhstan, and in one of the film’s most effective sequences, ends up at a former Stalinist prison camp for women which is being burned to the ground. Eventually she reaches the camp, where her confrontation with her increasingly deranged husband and with Vera makes little sense and, oddly, is dealt with brusquely.

The cosmonauts including Yuri Gagarin, who made that pioneering flight, are shown swimming in a tank housed in a former church; rolling across the countryside inside a wheel; bantering with one another and the staff; and voicing their hopes and fears. In one of the few moments of highly-charged drama, a terrified young cosmonaut is incinerated when his training suit catches fire in the hyperbaric chamber.

At one point, Anya, one of Danya’s other lovers, declares in frustration, 'I feel like I’m in a movie." She’s right: the characters are highly theatrical, serving as mouthpieces for various beliefs and attitudes from a distant era in Russian history. Hence the impact of the strong central performances, especially by Ninidze as the brooding, conflicted physician, is somewhat diluted.

The bleak mood is leavened by touches of humour, as when the doctors treat a hypochondriac friend, a stranger offers a giant portrait of Stalin which keeps escalating in price, and Nina wonders why 'everything in this country is called Sputnik."

The third feature by German, son of a renowned Russian film director, following Last Train and Garpastum, was intended as an homage to Russian films of the 1960s. That may please the buffs but it’s unlikely to connect with mainstream cinemagoers.

At the 2008 Venice International Film Festival, German took the Silver Lion for best director, while the cinematography prize went to Alisher Khamidhodjaev and Mixim Drozdov. The film’s title comes from Bulat Okudzhava’s 1959 song about a soldier who wanted to change the world but didn’t know he was made of paper and went up in flames.