Hard to Be a God German

Aleksei German's posthumously finished Hard to Be a God is like stepping into a panoramic Bruegel painting and putting your foot right into a shit-stained corpse… in a good way. The luxuriantly detailed, nearly three-hour film adapts the 1964 Strugatsky Brothers novel about scientists in the future who journey to another planet that’s literally stuck in the Dark Ages, and then live there undercover. But German (who died in February 2013) retains so little of the science-fiction frame that his black-and-white film becomes the closest thing medieval times may get to a verité documentary portrait—warts, mud, guts, and all.

Set during civil conflict, the film mostly follows Earth-born, armor-clad Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), who poses as the baronial offspring of a pagan god as he makes his way through the sweaty, ugly, farting, primitive madding crowd. The immediacy of the setting and carnivalesque cast drown out any clear grasp of Rumata’s obscurely defined mission (as do his routinely petty abuses of power). Fish-eye-lens compositions, fine-grained photography, marathon takes, and constant intrusions from off-screen combine to impart the sense of a living world. Squalid shapeless interiors seething with serfs, consorts, and half-wits open up to pre-modern landscapes of dirt, wood, and stone populated by armies of monks and scrappy peasants.

“Film is a divine art,” German is quoted as saying in the film's international press notes. This particular Godly work by the Russian master was completed by his longtime partner, Svetlana Caramalita, and son, Aleksei German Jr., after 13-plus years of on-again, off-again shooting and postproduction. Its vigor and openness to multiple allegorical readings will endure for years to come.

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