Film of the Week: Hard to Be a God
The late Russian director Aleksei German once declared: “I am not interested in anything but the possibility of building a world, an entire civilization from scratch.” He achieved his ambition in his final film, albeit posthumously. German had dreamed of adapting the Strugatsky Brothers’ novel Hard to Be a God since its publication in 1964, at the very start of his directing career; he finally embarked on a six-year shoot in 2000, but died in February 2013 before his film was completed. The project was brought to term by his wife and co-writer Svetlana Karmalita and their son Aleksei German Jr., himself a director of note. But Hard to Be a God was already nearly finished when German died and is, by all accounts, substantially as he intended it. If you’ve seen any of his small but extraordinary oeuvre, which includes My Friend Ivan Lapshin (84) and Khrustalyov, My Car! (98), you’ll immediately recognize in Hard to Be a God the signature of one of cinema’s great stylists and visionaries. I use the latter word without exaggeration: although Hard to Be a God is itself a case of cinematic exaggeration, an extreme case of visionary film, and as much a delirium as a movie in any customary sense.
Based on the book by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, whose Roadside Picnic was the basis for Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Hard to Be a God is a bleak medieval fantasia, although ostensibly it’s science fiction, since it takes place on another planet. Here’s a sketch of the plot, which you may find useful, as you’ll be hard pressed to gather this much from watching the film (I had to look to the novel for clarification, and well worth reading it is too). The setting is the city of Arkanar, on a humanoid-inhabited planet where life resembles Europe’s Middle Ages. Existence there is brutal, messy, and grim: the rain-battered streets are covered in mud, as is just about every available surface, including many inhabitants’ faces; the place is governed by a brutal slob named Don Reba (Aleksandr Chutko); and the streets are thronged with soldiers, thugs, peasantry, and assorted grimacing idiots in various stages of disfigurement and/or derangement. Arkanar is currently in the grip of a campaign to suppress art, culture, and knowledge of any kind, and is patrolled by militia known as the Greys—about to be succeeded by an even more brutal monastic warrior order, the Blacks.
At the center of this world is an outsider: an observer from Earth (Leonid Yarmolnik), operating in the guise of Don Rumata, an aristocratic swordfighter. His mission, supposedly, is to help this benighted planet develop a humane civilization, but he is sworn to a policy of non-intervention. To this end (as far as I could gather from the book), he hopes to rescue an imprisoned physician, Dr. Budakh (Evgeny Gerchakov). Rumata is seen by some around him—and, to a large degree, by himself—as a quasi-god. He tries to adhere to Earth principles and to maintain the rudiments of civilization: in this world of endemic slobbery, he prides himself on washing and on wearing clean, white linen. But he’s being transformed by the inhumanity that surrounds him. He’s never killed a man, not in 186 duels—but he has cut off 372 ears.
In the Strugatskys’ book, Rumata is a dandyish thinker, an idealist lapsing into cynicism but always ready for a Dostoevskian debate on human values and the futility or otherwise of combating evil. In the film, the notion that he is a paragon of sophistication is undermined from the start when he wakes and peers over a table cluttered with the debris of the previous night’s banquet: framed from the neck up, he looks about as urbane as a suckling pig.
Whatever narrative there is in German’s film has been engulfed by the density of the macabre, that bustling pageant fills the screen. German has indeed created a whole world—along with DPs Vladimir Ilyin and Yuri Klimenko, and production designers Sergei Kolovkin, Giorgy Kropachev and Elena Zhukova—and it’s an altogether grotesque, unholy one. One of the first things we see in the film is a bare arse framed in the window of a latrine; later, a joker frames his face with a soiled toilet seat and declares it a painting. That’s the kind of scatological picture we’re dealing with overall in this film, although on a more spectacular scale. The film is in black and white—mercifully, as it’s awash with bodily fluids of every sort—and the absence of color means that whenever we see sludge of a certain consistency, we don’t know whether it’s mud, feces, food, or a mixture of the lot. The hordes of actors are forever trudging over, or slipping face first onto, surfaces coated with mud; it’s a safe bet that German briskly dispensed with all but the most basic health and safety measures on set.
In exteriors and interiors alike, the frame is always crammed—with people, detail, sometimes impenetrable chiaroscuro. The people—thousands, it seems—are straight out of Bruegel and Bosch; the grotesques of the latter’s Christ Carrying the Cross were surely the prime reference for the film’s casting, although German has arguably gone further still in seeking out extremes of physiognomy. He rarely deigns to clear a space to make the action more transparent, or just give us a moment to pause: the action is a constant parade of militia toting halberds and spears, of passersby stopping to gaze quizzically at the camera, of gaping toothless mouths. At the start, a translucent circle on screen seems to denote Rumata’s POV: although the film never states this directly, the crystal he wears on his forehead is a camera, beaming what he sees to Earth. But later, when people gawk at the camera or confide the odd aside to it, it’s apparently just to break the fourth wall. Incidentally, German loves breaking walls of all kinds: at one point, a pile of wood crashes to reveal a whole landscape behind it, with the mandatory simpleton squinting straight at us.
The film’s world is familiar, up to a point, resembling certain instances of screen medievalism, but bleaker and crazier: from Russian cinema, echoes of Andrei Rublev and the Elsinore of Kozintsev’s Hamlet, while the muckiness and Grand Guignol knockabout put you in mind of Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky. Shot both in Lenfilm’s studios, and on location in the Czech Republic, the film is a marvel of production design, from the opening shot of a castle under snow—a truly Bruegel-esque winterscape, and one of the rare moments that could be described as beautiful in the proper sense. With its galleries and walkways, and labyrinthine interior and exterior architecture, the design is on a level of Gothic monumentalism right out of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. There are exterior scenes of arresting grandeur—the camera passes through a window to reveal a vast army of helmeted soldiers stationed in the night—and interiors of terrifying enclosure, endless prison corridors, cluttered castle chambers that seem to shift and fold in on themselves before we can get any purchase on their topography.
The camera is forever negotiating crowded rooms as if desperately looking for a space to breath, or moving unpredictably, without obvious regard for the action: in one shot, a horse gallops away dragging a man behind it, before the camera suddenly veers off and up to the side, as if in search of something more interesting to look at. There are mad shifts of perspective: an extended shot exploring Arkanar’s streets starts from a close-up of a donkey’s penis. Another shot scans the faces of corpses on a gibbet, then shifts to reveal a rural landscape stretching into the distance. We’re just taking stock of this newly revealed space when an off-screen hand starts pouring some kind of liquid right in the foreground: the use of deep focus in such shots is almost parodically extreme. An additional disorientation comes from the eerie use of post-synched dialogue, that makes it seem as if we’re watching not a new film but one at least decades old: Yarmolnik’s sardonic basso dryly, imperturbably comments on events as if from a great distance, even from another planet.
We get to explore an entire world here, down to every dark corner—and it’s a remarkably claustrophobic one. In Khrustalyov, My Car!, set in Stalin’s USSR, the corridors of crowded communal apartments became barely navigable labyrinths in which the camera’s movement and our line of sight were constantly impeded by people dashing into view, or thrusting kettles, brooms and other objects into the lens. That same principle applies here: geese, tortoises, goats, ducks, a monkey, a hedgehog, a swarm of flies all add to the already formidable human confusion. Throughout, things dangle into every available space: hanging ropes, chains, foliage, a dead fox, even a bull, or just unidentifiable fluid dripping into shot. Everything hangs down, in what is perhaps a very concrete illustration of the theme of the Fall. Few films—certainly none set in space—ever made such a prominent structuring principle out of gravity.
Then there’s the bloodletting, culminating in universal carnage. It’s hard to say exactly why this or that character gets killed, but many do, abruptly and horrifically: a colonel gets whacked in the head with some sort of spike; Rumata stabs someone with the horns on his samurai-style helmet, and blood gushes fountainously into his face; elsewhere, German makes extravagant use of cascading entrails and freshly gouged eyeballs. Yet there’s a strangely detached, cavalier aspect to the film’s violence: a key character gallops off screen, and in the next shot, he’s lying dead on a heap of festering rubbish, body spiked with arrows (to add to the exquisite bleakness, the film’s intermittent voiceover notes matter-of-factly that rotten turnips would later be dumped on him).
In many ways, the film defiantly refuses to make sense, outside a certain language of flamboyant gesturality and mood-swing volatility: here characters are forever slapping themselves on the head, stopping to smear gunk on each other’s faces, or pulling hideous grimaces and putting on strange voices, for no apparent reason other than that such are the uncontainable energies of the world they inhabit.
Hard to Be a God does aspire, in its way, to be a divine venture: German has taken on the task, like a mad deity, of creating an autonomous universe of uncontainable energy and extremity. This is truly Promethean filmmaking of a kind that seems of late to have become a peculiarly Russian phenomenon. Much rumor, for example, surrounds another vast long-gestating project which may one day conceivably be completed, Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s Dau, for which the director created not so much a set as an entire citadel.
Then there’s Alexander Zeldovich’s regrettably overlooked Target (11), a dystopian imagining of a near-future oligarchs’ Russia. This may all be coincidence rather than an actual trend, and there may not be much specifically Russian about this attraction to visionary gigantism. Then again, look at the heft of the nation’s novels in the last two centuries—and if German’s new film echoes any pre-20th-century novel, it’s surely Dead Souls, Gogol’s abortive panorama of the human condition, with its mix of cartoonish farce, metaphysics and grubby realism.
I’m reluctant to speculate on Hard to Be a God referring to any contemporary real-world subject, or indeed to anything other than German’s general view of the human condition. That said, his previous films depict very specific moments in Russia’s 20th century. In a contemporary Russian context, the film could well be read as a cry of despair, lamenting the impossibility of ever rising out of a centuries-old state of brutality and confusion. That would make it a reversal of the Strugatsky novel’s belief in the drive towards enlightenment, born out of a Khrushchev-era desire to rise above the depredations of the Stalin years. There’s little left of divinity or super-humanity in German’s film: “It’s hard to be a god,” sighs Rumata, to which another character reacts by ramming a finger up the speaker’s nostril. But the film does end, as it began, on a note of melancholy beauty, as Rumata makes his escape from Arkanar’s carnage, riding across a snowy landscape and blowing a distinctly jazzy melody on his horn (with a nice anachronistic tone of Albert Ayler). But the beauty is undercut too: “Do you like this music?” comments a passing girl. “It makes my tummy hurt.”
Hard to Be a God is such a singular anomaly that it’s tempting to suspend any value judgment. I felt as much overwhelmed, oppressed, exhausted by it as bewitched, and I wonder how many viewers its genuinely hermetic brilliance will connect with. But to consider it a failed experiment, or a quixotic folly, would be meaningless because the film works on terms that are entirely its own: if it resembles anything at all, it’s the uncategorizable, uncanny extraterrestrial artifacts left behind on Earth by the alien visitors in the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic. Or I’d compare it to the later “novels” (if such they are) of Céline, unstemmable cascades of malediction and polemic that set their own terms of engagement with such belligerent force that it makes no sense at all to compare them to the novel in any of its known incarnations. As much as any film can just be, German’s film just is, and has to be marveled at—or rejected—on its own terms. Boil it down, though, and it can be seen to carry one simple message: it may be hard to be a god, but it’s hell to be human.