Engaging with a near-three-hour sci-fi set entirely within the bedraggled medieval milieu of a distant planet is a daunting proposition, especially one forged under the singular direction of renowned Russian filmmaker Aleksei German. Hard to Be a God (2013) is a cinematic behemoth, an unshakable monochrome nightmare of squelching bodily discharges that inhabits a world so noxious you can almost smell the pungent deterioration of humanity as it spews forth from the screen. German died of heart failure whilst Hard to be a God was still in post-production and it’s with thanks to his wife Svetlana Karmalita and son Aleksei Jr. that we’re able to appreciate German’s work posthumously.
Adapted from the novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (authors of Roadside Picnic, the inspiration for Tarkovsky’s Stalker), German’s final film is a visceral voyage through the annals of human depravity. The narrative unfurls on Arkanar, a distant planet similar to Earth in all aspects except that it never enjoyed a Renaissance. Stuck in a perpetual barbaric state, the planet resembles the Middle Ages, with the suppression of culture and education employed to oppress the masses. A group of scientists and historians from Earth have arrived to usher in a new epoch, yet this distillation of knowledge must go unnoticed if they’re to inconspicuously guide the planet’s towards an new age of enlightenment. German chooses to consign the novel’s plot to the fringes, focusing instead on Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), a scientist charged with finding a doctor named Budakh (Evgeniy Gerchakov) and protecting him from tyrannical Don Reba (Aleksandr Chutko).
Plunged head first into the cinematic mire, Hard to Be a God’s baroque mise-en-scene feels like being funnelled through a Bruegel landscape – an earthy, unsentimental masterpiece depicting feudal serfdom, except remember this isn’t Earth – it’s the planet Arkanar. Filmed entirely in black and white – though you’d imagine the palette would look much the same had German been inclined to film in colour – lengthy choreographed shots escort us on a never ending trek through this fetid cesspool of barbarous debauchery. Similar in style and approach to Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) except with human excrement lining the walls instead of years of accumulated culture, German successfully manages to recreate the unsanitary conditions or pre-renaissance Europe in what feels like a salacious viewing experience.
The camera floats ominously behind Rumata’s shoulder, caught in perpetual motion, as if swallowed whole and belligerently forcing its way through the digestive system of this putrid world. This is less an immersive experience and rather more of an invasive one. Overdubbed voices whisper, snivel and cough in your ears, whilst random characters continuously break the forth-wall staring directly at you, mocking your fake sense of progress. By submerging the viewer so entirely within this nightmarish landscape German effectively manages to infect the audience with the film’s corrosive social allegory. German’s wilfully opaque approach is one that may alienate even the most seasoned of arthouse patrons, demanding total servitude of the viewer and a desire to be submerged within a stomach-churning ecology, rather than the enthralling theoretical narrative the film’s synopsis suggests.
Despite Hard to be a God’s medieval environs, the film is very much an allegory for where we’re heading, rather than where we’ve come from. Yes, German has crafted a primordial voyage into humanity’s depraved history. Yet as we watch his mud-caked cast smile and gurn as they crawl through faeces, gnarl on putrid meat and expel inordinate quantities of phlegm, we should be asking how our own ineffectual educated elite can save us from the gloom of contemporary squalor and subjugation. Ultimately, it’s this overriding sense of hopelessness that lingers once Hard to be a God comes to its conclusion; a pitying sense of acceptance that we’re eternally destined to sift through the shit in search of enlightenment.
Hard to be a God featured in CineVue’s ‘Best films of 2014’ feature. You can read the full list here.