This is the kind of film – Russian, black and white, just under three hours long, different – that either provokes cries of ‘masterpiece’ from viewers or complaints that the plot is unintelligible and the 180 minutes spent watching have been lost forever. It will divide opinion: several people gave up and left during the screening I attended in London, while comments online seem to reinforce the notion that people either love it or hate it, with few occupying the middle ground. Completed in 2013 and currently showing in a handful of UK cinemas, my advice would be to try and watch this film on the big screen if you can, but only if you are a fan of arthouse or if you simply enjoy unusual experiences. It’s unlikely that you’ll have seen anything like Aleksei German’s Hard To Be A God before.
Based on the 50-year-old Russian science fiction novel of the same name by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, this film is the second attempt at a big screen adaptation, though Peter Fleischmann’s 1989 effort was criticised by the Strugatsky brothers after a falling out with the director. Development of German’s
version actually began shortly thereafter, though filming did not start until 2000 and continued for a whopping six years thereafter; by all accounts the shoot was a hellish experience, and it’s not difficult to understand why when you see the finished product, of which more later. A lengthy phase of editing and post-production followed, complicated by German’s death in 2013, and the film was eventually completed by his son (and fellow director) Aleksei German, Jr. It was shown on the festival circuit in 2014 to near universal acclaim, though even hardened critics have written about the experience as if it were a kind of endurance test.
The story takes place on an alien planet, referred to as the Kingdom of Arkanar, that is similar to Earth. However Arkanar seems to be stuck in its equivalent of our own Middle Ages, unable to make the leap to its own Renaissance, which is being actively suppressed by those in power. 30 Russian scientists have been dispatched from Earth to try and push things forward. In the film it seems as if they cannot interfere with society, though, and have been observing rather than influencing for the best part of 20 years; the chief protagonist, a scientist who has adopted the persona of nobleman Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), chooses to stand aside and watch while intellectuals are murdered and writing or art is burned, though there is some suggestion that he has tried (and failed) to instill a basic understanding of the value of good hygiene. Mostly, though, the frustrated Don Rumata seems to have gone native, joining the Arkanarians in their squalor, though relative to the peasants on his land he is living comfortably. He has taken a wife, owns slaves, and becomes embroiled in the ongoing civil war that is being fought between factions known as The Greys and The Blacks. Both sides are brutal and unforgiving. (It’s hard to understand the plot while the film plays, and much of the above paragraph has been cribbed from press notes, reviews and other articles.)
German’s film consists of a series of long takes. The scenes are packed with constantly-moving characters and objects, which the director often places in close proximity to the camera lens; the Don’s silver, studded gloves regularly appear in the foreground, as do swaying, hanging corpses of all kinds and various grotesque faces, their owners sometimes peering down the lens at the audience and accentuating the viewer’s feeling of being in the thick of the action. An intense feeling of claustrophobia is created through the use of small, cluttered and over-populated spaces (castellan’s quarters, corridors, prison cells and the like) and it’s quite an oppressive experience outdoors too, with much packed into the frame. It’s made even more unpleasant by the fact that the characters are often torturing or hitting or spitting at one another.
Ah yes, the spitting. Phlegm is just one of many bodily fluids making a regular appearance in Hard To Be A God. This is a film packed with blood, shit, piss, spittle, entrails (human and animal) and more, leading the critic Jonathan Romney to suggest it makes Game Of Thrones ‘look like musical chairs’. It’s deliberately disgusting, and German ensures a steady stream of this gak is sent to the floor, where it mixes with the ever-present and unavoidable mud. The weather in Arkanar is consistently terrible, with sudden showers alternating with dense fog and, as we learn at the end, snow. It’s as if the director is trying to create the worst living conditions he (or the Strugatskys) can imagine, and I’ll reiterate that sitting through three hours of it is not a light undertaking. If characters aren’t standing in this quagmire they’re smearing it on their faces or smelling it on the tips of their fingers. The intention is for this society to disgust us, a feat that German has successfully realised. And if the appearance of these medieval settings wasn’t bad enough, the actions of the inhabitants will further any revulsion among the audience. This caked-in-filth film is often bloody, and violent, and unsympathetic towards its many characters (few of which really command our sympathy anyway). I am struggling to think of any work I have seen that is quite as physical as this one, with so much regular contact between characters (both violent and non-violent). Our ‘hero’, if he can be described as such, is cruel toward the peasants under his control, often beating them and throwing objects at their heads, but he shows brief signs of affection to a young prince and the woman he has taken for his wife. This Rumata is feared, having developed a reputation as a fearsome warrior, and claims to have cut off the ears of 192 men in his 20 years on the planet. Talk about going native…
So why would anyone in their right mind recommend a film that is as disgusting, as willfully impenetrable and as downright depressing as this one? The truth is it’s difficult to imagine any director exhibiting as much care and attention to detail as German does here. Despite the tumult depicted every shot is so carefully choreographed, every costume and action and movement and look and interaction so meticulously planned and executed, it’s simply one of the finest examples of director as orchestrator you will ever see, and no surprise at all that there has been a rush to describe it as one of the greatest films of all time. Every scene has the potential to disgust, yes, but it is also a magnificently-lit wonder, and even at its most grim and depraved there is a certain unmistakable beauty in Hard To Be A God. It’s exhausting but there are five, six, seven things of interest on screen at all times, all in the right place, and as such it’s a shame that non-Russian eyes will constantly be drawn to the subtitles; yet although it’s probably needed I wonder whether I’ve got a second viewing in me, even five or ten years from now, in order to take it all in.
Hard To Be A God is undoubtedly a magnificent achievement, a film that defies categorisation and defies comparison with other cinematic works (and I’m not just saying that because my last two reviews here have been for Trainwreck and Wet Hot American Summer). I have to admit it’s not a comfortable viewing experience, but it is one that you will remember. I’d argue it’s entirely possible to consider a film ‘great’ without it ever necessarily appearing on a list of your personal favouritesm, and this is great in many senses of the word: epic, admirable, extreme, long, extravagant and formidable. Yarmolink’s performance in the eye of the hurricane is equally worthy of praise, as is the work of cinematographers Vladimir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko, Nikolai Astakhov’s sound design, and the efforts of those involved with costume and production design, who are sadly too numerous to list here.
Directed by: Aleksei German.
Written by: Aleksei German, Svetlana Karmalita. Based on Hard To Be A God by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.
Starring: Leonid Yarmolnik, Evgeniy Gerchakov, Aleksandr Chutko, Valentin Golubenko.
Cinematography: Vladimir Ilin, Yuriy Klimenko.
Editing: Irina Gorokhovskaya.
Music: Viktor Lebedev.
Running Time: 177 minutes.