A visceral and sublime experience over four decades in the making makes for a towering cinematic achievement.
Hard to Be a God
Back in the 1960’s, director Aleksei German wanted to adapt Arkady & Boris Strugatsky’s sci-fi novel Hard to Be a God into a movie. He started working on a screenplay, but the project got shelved for over 30 years. Cut to 2000, where German finally starts filming his long-gestating project. The production, an elaborate and presumably expensive one, didn’t finish until 2006. After that, German spent his time finishing the film until his death in early 2013. His wife and son continued his work, eventually finishing the film for a festival premiere later that year. Now, just over a year later, Hard to Be a God finally makes its way to the US, getting a limited theatrical release from Kino Lorber.
When it comes to discussing Hard to Be a God, the film’s 40+ year journey to the screen becomes an inevitable topic, and not just because of that story’s compelling nature. It also helps provide context for watching German’s film. This is over 4 decades in the making, and every single frame shows it. German has ended his career on a bang so loud it can start an earthquake. The only thing I could do while watching Hard to Be a God was sit in awe at the onslaught of barbarity, at the realization of something so vivid and tactile yet horrifyingly alien. A film like this could only be made with decades of preparation.
An opening piece of narration sets the scene: it’s far into the future, and the setting is a faraway planet called Arkanar. The planet is exactly like Earth, except its civilization still remains far behind the times. They’re essentially living in a pre-Renaissance era, meaning everyone is a bumbling idiot at best or a complete savage at worst. Astronauts from Earth come down to observe the planet, with the hopes of finding and protecting the planet’s intellectuals so Arkanar can start making progress. One of these astronauts, Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), has spent years living on Arkanar, slowly going mad from the squalor surrounding him. One of the first scenes, where two men giddily laugh as they smear shit on each other, does all the necessary explaining for his growing insanity.
That sort of scene eventually becomes commonplace by the end of the film’s 3-hour runtime. Arkanar is, to put it simply, a hell hole. People frequently rape, kill and torture each other, everything gets treated as a toilet, and torrential rains turns the ground into mud going up to people’s knees. Rumata’s efforts to save intellectuals tends to go awry (early on, a poet gets drowned in a pool of excrement). Part of the plot involves Don Reba, a fascist dictator ruling the area Rumata resides in. To ensure his power won’t get threatened, he convinces the masses to blame the intellectuals for their problems. And unfortunately for Rumata, he can’t do too much to help; as an observer, he can’t get too involved or use his own advanced skills. He can only watch, pretending he’s on the same level as everyone else yet fully aware he can exert plenty of intelligence and power over them (hopefully by now the title will start making some sense).
Granted, the idea of spending 170 minutes watching nothing but misery certainly doesn’t sound appealing (there have been many stories of people fleeing the theatre, unable to take what German puts on-screen), but it’s by design. German shows humanity at its puerile worst, and his commitment to detailing such ugliness is awe-inspiring. It’s a film dedicated to putting viewers in a constant state of discomfort, with German using different techniques to make sure there isn’t a single moment of rest. The technique German uses most frequently, and to great effect, is throwing something into the foreground of a shot. Whether it’s a hand, a dead fish, a face, or anything else, watching these things suddenly enter the frame in extreme close-up creates an effect similar to watching a 3D film.
Cinematographers Vladimir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko should also deserve a special mention alongside German, as their work feels revolutionary. Using frequent long takes with Steadicam, and shooting with black and white 35mm film, the camera veers and fumbles around every scene. Every shot uses deep focus, showing off each element in the frame in full detail. Every shot comes across like an event, with everything so meticulously constructed and choreographed it’s amazing to see all the organized chaos work so beautifully. The Steadicam’s movements, combined with German’s intense preparation, lend a documentary quality to some moments, as if a futuristic camera crew went back in time to film pre-Renaissance life. The fact that so many extras deliberately stare the camera down (yet another tactic by German to maintain a sense of unease) only adds to the feeling of observing something real, and not a fiction.
And ultimately, that’s what makes Hard to Be a God a great piece of cinema. Every second feels authentic, like looking into a completely different yet fully realized world. Plot and narrative take the backseat here; it’s there, but trying to comprehend it would be a fool’s errand. For me, at least on a first viewing, I had to let the film’s filth wash over me. Yes, German’s creation is extremely unpleasant, but it’s such a cinematic powerhouse it can’t be faulted. Hard to Be a God might be the closest thing to hell on film, and delving into German’s shit and mud-soaked world is an experience I can’t say I’ve had with any other film. It’s a staggering achievement, one bound to leave an impact for many years to come on the souls brave enough to get through it. It’s quite early, but I have a hard time imagining another film from this year topping Hard to Be a God. I kept getting reminded of films like 2001 and Playtime, where truly unique, singular visions comes to life through near-flawless execution. Films like these don’t come along very often. Hard to Be a God is an exhausting, disgusting, and draining experience. It’s also a complete masterpiece.