by Matt Levine
If nothing else, Hard to Be a God will almost certainly lay claim to the title of 2015’s most disgusting cinematic experience. The world we see during the film’s three hours is grimy, shitstained, festering and noisome (we can almost smell the screen); the sets are typically smeared with a combination of mud and something less pleasant, and the soundtrack is a near-constant parade (marked by uneasy silences) of belches, squeals, and tormented yells. The camera inches through claustrophobic spaces, an array of obstructions (various meats, dead animals) hanging from the ceiling. Then, of course, there are the disembowelments and beheadings. This might not be the most alluring sales pitch, but thankfully Hard to Be a God can be regarded as much more than just a vile horror-show, a miserable wallow in human awfulness; there is existential mystery and aesthetic wonder beside its repugnances.
Director: Aleksei German
Producers: Viktor Izvekov, Leonid Yarmolnik
Writers: Aleksei German, Svetlana Karmalita, Arkady Strugatsky (novel), Boris Strugatsky (novel)
Cinematographers: Vladimir Ilin, Yuriy Klimenko
Editor: Irina Gorokhovskaya
Music: Viktor Lebedev
Cast: Leonid Yarmolnik, Dmitri Vladimirov, Laura Pitskhelauri, Aleksandr Ilyin, Yuri Tsurilo, Yevgeni Gerchakov, Aleksandr Chutko, Oleg Botin, Pyotr Merkuryev
Genre: Science Fiction/Drama
Premiere: November 13, 2013 – Rome Film Festival
US Distributor: Kino Lorber
The film was literally decades in the making: Aleksei German, the meticulous Russian director whose films often faced production and censorship obstacles (he’s made six features since 1967), first started planning Hard to Be a God in the late ‘60s. Based on the sci-fi novel by the Strugatsky brothers (the same duo who wrote the source novels for Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Alexander Sokurov’s Days of Eclipse), German’s adaptation was to be a grim, austere look at an alternate reality where humanity remains stuck in the Dark Ages, ruled by barbarism. Here, on the distant planet of Arkanar, human life runs almost parallel to our own evolution on Earth—albeit a few centuries behind. The Renaissance, however, seems infinitely out of reach for this grotesque planet, as the muddy medieval streets are typically populated by drunkards, bare-assed idiots, or armed soldiers killing writers and intellectuals.
To this planet a scientist is sent from Earth: Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), who has been asked to observe this alternate humanity without influencing or intervening in any way. Because he seemingly appears from the skies, Rumata is rumored to be the offspring of a god among the locals—and indeed, Rumata eventually behaves like one, no longer willing to idly watch this subspecies ruin themselves (arguably, he accelerates the process). There is also, apparently, a conflict between the religious “Grays” and the militaristic “Blacks,” although it’s usually impossible to tell these warring factions apart.
As someone who doesn’t mind a vague, elusive narrative, I’ll admit that the elliptical storytelling in Hard to Be a God can be frustrating: there are mentions of Grays, Blacks, tyrants, and martyrs, but German has little interest in conveying this storyline concretely, instead watching these madmen slop through their abhorrent world in brutal close-up. We’re left not with a legible storyline, in other words, but with a completely engrossing immersion in a vivid alternate reality—which, after all, is one of the things cinema can do more ably than the other arts. Each soupy outhouse, each muddy city square, the rain-slicked gallows, the grimy cellars seem repellently lived-in, artifacts from an unknown space and time somehow preserved. Whenever the story becomes incomprehensible (or the gruesomeness overwhelming), there are aesthetic wonders to captivate you in other ways.
Indeed, the drearily beautiful cinematography and dense soundtrack serve as a fitting capstone to German’s career. (After shooting the film from 2000 to 2006, German worked on editing and sound design for seven years, until his death in 2013—the film was finished by his wife and son.) Embossed with splinters of light, deep shadows, and remarkable tactility (you can practically feel the slurping mud seep into your shoes), the cinematography (by Vladimir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko) brings to life a world I have never seen in movies before, at least not as vividly. The crudity and absolute immersion in a wildly different way of life reminded me of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Decameron and Dusan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism, but Hard to Be a God is really on its own cinematic planet—a study in barbarism that is not easy to take, though it’s astounding to watch. Meanwhile, on the soundtrack, a precise blend of sounds, from deafening footsteps to growled dialogue to sickening, phlegmy bodily noises, interweave; all of the sound was post-dubbed (as in many of German’s films), allowing him to create a unique and unsettling aural background (it’s no wonder it took German seven years to come close to finishing editing).
All of this combines to make a frightening, unflinching condemnation of the hell that men create, one of the only films I’ve seen that creates a style similar to a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The graphic violence and bodily unpleasantness wouldn’t mean much without a thematic subtext, but even if Hard to Be a God is abrasive, it undeniably has an existential empathy for man. Everyone in the film is powerless: Don Ruma cannot do anything to deter this world from its base path, the shit-covered peasants are tormented by armed guards, the few writers that live here are threatened with death (or already hanging from a noose), and even the soldiers and monks carry out vile orders in terror of some punishment from God, or sickened that this divine force does nothing to intervene. (As one deranged character screams to the sky, “Creator, if you exist, blow us away. Blow us away like dust or pus. Or leave us in our rot. Destroy us all.”) This malady even extends to the film camera: in the midst of a long tracking shot, it might abruptly assume someone’s POV as other characters gawk at it and speak to it (their dialogue often unheard), only to become a disembodied camera once more. Even the camera, in other words, is compared to an omniscient but impotent God, bearing witness to abject misery but unable (or unwilling) to do anything to stop it.
First written in 1964 and gestating as a film project in German’s mind shortly thereafter, Hard to Be a God was originally meant as a condemnation of Stalin-era tyranny in the Soviet Union—the ease with which people can be betrayed by the leaders, and the ease with which leaders become mad and power-hungry. It’s a sad irony that such a political subtext still works fifty years later, allegorizing the media censorship and rampant corruption of which Putin’s presidency has been accused (just as it might symbolize the tensions between the rulers and the ruled in any nation, including the US). More effective and universal than the film’s political subversion, though, is its existential despair—its depiction of a parallel Earth in which only the dark side of human nature appears to have survived. Love is certainly nowhere in sight, and the brief examples of art (in the form of musical performances and paintings) are either destroyed or fall on deaf ears. Do the scales of humanity shift more to destruction or harmony? If we’re just an animal species driven by evolutionary urges, how is there any kind of religious or moral scripture to follow? (As Ruma prays before a climactic massacre, “God, if you exist, stop me!”) This is the ambitious conceptual terrain the movie explores, and even if its dismal tone basically denies the possibility of any hope at all, at least its existential speculation is powerful in the majestic way that Russian cinematic masters seem to have perfected like nobody else.
A telling contrast can be found, I think, between Hard to Be a God and the Ukrainian film The Tribe, which played at the Walker earlier this year and will play at St. Anthony Main on Monday, June 22. Both films are extremely bleak comments on the innate cruelty and violence in humans, and both utilize a rigorous aesthetic (very long takes, minimal or no dialogue) to convey highly unique and extreme environments. While some of The Tribe’s shock value seems unearned, however—its themes of community, isolation, masculinity, and violence are not especially complex, and the film’s nihilism seems disrespectful to the characters that are tormented onscreen—I find Hard to Be a God’s ugly, bitter core more substantial and brutally humane than The Tribe’s. Hard to Be a God provides rampant evidence of the awfulness of man, but it also identifies with the moral dislocation and spiritual doubt of being alive, which all of us at least subconsciously face. Someday, German’s final film might be regarded as a marvel of existential sci-fi along with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Stalker; for now, I can only say that Hard to Be a God is the most intense viewing experience you’ll have in a theater this year, as astounding to contemplate as it is to experience.