Patrick Unwin reviews the 2013 Russian science-fiction film
Aleksei German’s baffling art house, sci-fi epic is a time capsule: not only does Hard to Be a God (HTBAG) transport the viewer back into the filth and squalor of the Middle Ages, but the film itself was four decades in the planning, followed by six years of shooting – German himself died in 2013 before he could complete it. At three hours long and with a challenging approach to narrative, it is not an easy watch, but nevertheless a rewarding one.
Based on the 1964 novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the central concept of the film is highly inventive. It is set on a distant planet almost identical to Earth, but several centuries behind development-wise. I found German’s work reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev in its surreal depiction of a Medieval world that feels distinctly Eastern European. Scientists from Earth have been sent here to observe the development of this civilization, which is in the grip of a violent backlash against intellectualism, and a nascent ‘renaissance’ movement is crushed. One of the scientists, Anton, has taken up residence as a nobleman in the kingdom of Arkanar. Assuming the title of Don Rumata, he is revered by many as a demigod, which affords him relative immunity from harm. Rumata and his fellow scientists are unable to intervene directly in the affairs of the kingdom, even as its denizens sink to ever-greater acts of depravity.
It does become something of an endurance test at times, and I sympathise with the large number of people who left the cinema
One thing HTBAG has plenty of is filth. Almost every surface and character is partially or totally covered in mud. The environment accentuates the atmosphere of barbarity, as both peasants and nobles alike find themselves forced into the dirt; George R. R. Martin’s Westeros seems to be a paradise by comparison. The black and white cinematography of this landscape has a chilling quality, as it serves to suck the warmth of the sun. While the setting is deliberately repulsive, the film is remarkable to look at, and many shots go on for minutes. The camera is normally at mid shot or close up range, creating a ‘fly on the wall’ point of view, as the action is partially obscured by other characters or by all manner of hanging objects. This feels claustrophobic, as if we too are trapped in one of Arkanar’s many courtrooms or dungeons.
The plot is at times barely discernible, perhaps owing to the fact that the editing was completed by German’s wife and son. It does become something of an endurance test at times, and I sympathise with the large number of people who left the cinema. The immersive visuals serve to make it more accessible, if only to allow the viewer to become absorbed into the madness, rather than actually help us to understand what is unfolding before us. There are a few curveballs, such as when the screen fades to black after Rumata passes out drunk in the street, followed by a close up of a donkey’s penis, which we are forced to examine several seconds. Far from allowing his audience to adjust to the horror, German delights in the unexpected and moments like this reveal his penchant for pitch black humour.
Humanity seems to have come full circle, as space travel has brought us back to a state of primitive savagery
All the sounds in the film are narrative, from the pouring rain to the squawk of the chickens that frequently scamper across the room. Rumata sometimes plays jazz on a clarinet like instrument: the only real evidence that he is indeed from Earth and not another deluded native. The air is constantly filled with the sound of people coughing, wheezing and snorting. Everyone seems to be unhealthy, as if society itself is sick. Humanity seems to have come full circle, as space travel has brought us back to a state of primitive savagery. There may be some deliberate parallels with Russian history, as the purge seems to mirror the violence of the Stalin era. Moreover, the factional conflict between anonymous groups like the ‘greys’ and the ‘blacks’ is similar to the war between fascism and communism in the 20th century.
HTBAG is a monolithic piece of work and provides a stark and darkly comic testament to human irrationality.
Featured image credit: still from Hard to be a God