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Review: Aleksei German's "Hard to Be a God"

Years in the making, the final film by the Russian master twists sci-fi into a medieval tour (de force) of barbarism incarnate.

A publicity still from Hard to be a God

If you, like many, have been waiting so many years for Soviet/Russian master Aleksei German to finish what, upon the director's passing in 2013, has ended up being his final film (with finishing touches by his wife and co-writer Svetlana Karmalita and his son Aleksei German Jr.), you will have to embrace muck. You will have to swim in shit, slather yourself with grime, dirt, and water, enrobe yourself in filthy fog, feel roughened leather, splintered wood, caked and hardened cloth, rusted and creaky iron armor; you will have to embrace the damp, dank, dirty opus of cinema that is Hard to Be a God. It is cinematic texture taken to an extreme.

Based on a 1964 novel by the Strugatsky brothers (literary sources for Tarkovsky's Stalker and Aleksandr Sokurov's Day of Eclipse, among other adaptations), its barely science fiction premise proposes Earth scientists of the near future travel to a newly discovered planet so Earth-like it resembles our 13th century. In other words, this is a medieval movie, and one thoroughly in the gonzo-sludge-stench category of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, our "middle" history as a decaying, dilapidated heap of the half ruined and all-engrimed.

The first catch is this initial sci-fi premise: the Earth men are under ominous, vague stricture neither to use their knowledge nor to impact the world around them, and so are left to wander and inhabit a barbaric land—a land where writings and art are burned, the literate killed, and women are conspicuously rare—as enlightened but inactive aristocrat-gods. The second catch is that the film is by Aleksei German, who envisions this world with his overwhelming and baroque mise en scène. The film is a dense nest of lengthy, offhandedly elaborate choreographed single shot sequences, overdubbed voices (only half translated) and sounds that are layered as if they are murmuring for your ears alone, and a way of using these two tendencies to bury the story movements deep within the historical, cultural, and social context of his films.

Previous movies by German, especially the two thundering masterpieces My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1984) and Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998), practically required an upbringing in Soviet Russia to be familiar with the cultural touchstones which guide and give meaning to the director's cinema. While in a way Hard to Be a God makes for easier viewing because of its generalized, semi-allegorical false-history setting, nevertheless this recognizable but "new" world asks us to make sense of a seemingly equally deep social strata and cultural system. (Such cinematic world building is immensely impressive, all the more so in that much of it exists in such bizarre examples as the way feces, its taste and smell, are used as something like totems, currency, or maybe a drug-like food in the film.) Although distinctly focused on one "lord"/god whose advanced knowledge and bizarre placement in both the society and mythology of the planet condemn him to wander the world with little meaning, hope or joy, the film is episodic and almost storyless.

This structure seems to be intended to represent historical time as a immobile quagmire, making Hard to Be a God primarily a primordial immersion into humanity's filthy, desperate, debauched past. It's a horrifying period that, the film suggests, the educated could (or can) do little to save from its entrenched gloom and must instead patiently wait out a slow evolution from early civilized barbarism. (The film is a cinematic brother in many ways to Andrzej Zulawski's woe-begotten, dirt-ridden sci-fi vision of beginning human civilization anew, On the Silver Globe.) And with blood, mud, sausages, and entrails literally flung onto the camera lens as a cavalcade of freaks and miscreants leer at each other and out at us in servility, obsequiousness, and devious insinuations—Bahktin's carnival turned into a permanent and thus joyless state of society—the film is a tour (de force) indeed of barbarism incarnate.
 

This review originally appeared in our coverage for the 2014 International Film Festival Rotterdam.

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