Hard to Be a God Dir. Aleksei German

[Lenfilm; 2014]

Styles: sci-fi
Others: My Friend Ivan Lapshin, The Devils, Sweet Movie

The fact that this film took over a decade to make in itself doesn’t make it great, but it does go a long way in explaining how it managed to so fully realize such an elaborate and dauntingly grotesque mise-en-scène. Russian director Aleksei German began principal photography on this intricate, violent, disconcerting movie toward the end of 2000, and kept working on it until his death in February of 2013, ultimately leaving the final touches in the editing room to his his widow, Svetlana Karmelita and their son, Aleksei Jr. It’s a tough thing to watch at times, being a nearly constant barrage of human brutality and visceral filth shot in excruciatingly beautiful and haunting black and white by accomplished cinematographers Vladimir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko.

Loosely based on the Strugatsky Brothers’ (of Stalker fame) 1973 novel of the same name, Hard to Be a God leaves behind all but the bare essentials of the book, explaining via narration in its first couple of minutes that a group of scientists in the future have been sent to a planet much like Earth, that’s still in the middle of a protracted Dark Ages. These scientists have been sent to monitor the progress of that planet’s humanoid civilization, with strict orders not to interfere or help out in any way. After that curt introduction we’re launched into a virtually non-stop parade of different iterations of human cruelty, debasement, and despair as scientist Don Rumata (who the natives are convinced is the son of a God) travels from gross castle to gross castle.

Hard to Be a God is a challenging film insofar as it barely sustains a plot, latching onto what German felt to be the centrally interesting part of the Strugatsky Brothers’ story, namely, that it’s entirely possible that Earth’s renaissance was a fluke, and that given a slightly different set of circumstances, humanity on earth would be just as mired in an unknowing brutality that confounded any rational attempt to explain it. It’s a stark, unsettling and heartbreaking thing to watch, made all the more enthralling by the way German chose to construct his shots, with mud-covered people and objects bumping into the camera lens seemingly at random throughout, heightening its already firmly established sense of immersion. When we first meet Rumata, he’s wearing a curious-looking crystal pendant around his forehead, which we soon deduce to be a camera of sorts, indicating that all of the crazy stuff we’re seeing in front of us is being recorded by a silent accomplice of Rumata’s. It’s exceedingly difficult to describe just how relentless and quick-moving this movie and its scenes are. It’s also very hard not to find yourself wondering just how bad the gross stuff happening on screen probably would have smelled to the characters who had to live with it.

What strikes such a deafening note about this film is the absence of sentiment from its characters, whose lives are unquestionably terrible. The poor who are so used to being surrounded by shit that they’ll smear it over their faces for a laugh (which, oddly enough, happens to comprise one of the very first scenes in the film) have no idea that they could be anything more than what they are, which is profoundly disheartening. The parallels to post-soviet Eastern Europe are as subtle as they are devastating, and no one but German would understand so fully how ridding his film of coherent narrative only served to further drive his point home. Rumata’s sense of meaninglessness is pretty much the only thing you could rightly say is developed throughout the movie, as he’s faced with countless examples where he could greatly help, if only he made the choice to utilize the power of his cosmic position and knowledge.

In the end, our hero is just as mired in the incomprehensibly terrible circumstance that surrounds him as those denizens to whom he’s ostensibly so superior. Even though he has the wherewithal to leave the planet and its atrocious situation behind, he seems to entirely lack the drive to do it, being so thoroughly demoralized by what he’s experienced for years on end as the civilization he’s grown to care about completely negates any trace of humanity which he’d like to ascribe to it. The family German chose to end Aleksei’s film without much sense of resolution, which is fitting, since the central point running throughout Hard to Be a God is that resolution is impossible (at least for the inhabitants of the broken planet on which its set). German’s final opus is a terrifying and gorgeously realized thing, and worth watching every minute of.

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