Aleksei German’s epic Dark Ages sci-fi Hard to Be a God (2013) took over a decade to make its way onto DVD and Blu-ray this week. Shot on-and-off for more than six years, the revered filmmaker regretfully passed away before the lengthy edit could be completed, but thanks to his wife and co-writer, Svetlana Karmalita, and son Aleksei German Jr, audiences now have the opportunity to wallow in his final picture in all its repugnant glory. For Hard to Be a God is a three-hour wade through shit, mud and blood – in the best possible way. Plot is of secondary importance to German, and the majority of its transmission to the viewer comes in croaking introduction laid over monochrome images of a medieval township.
Snow gently drifts down as a static and beautifully composed establishing shot sets the scene, but it this is the last moment of such serenity. Marauding steadicam shots will from this point wend their way through the fog, rain and sludge that dominate the milieu of Arkanar. What initially appears to be Europe in the Middle Ages is revealed by voice-over to be a distant planet, similar to Earth but lagging 800 years behind in terms of development. A group of our very own scientists have journeyed here across space to embed themselves in the local populace and observe the enlightenment – but it has never arrived. Instead, intellectuals and academics are being executed by a warlord.
In an early rain-drenched scene, one such man is drowned head first in a latrine pit and its a disconcertingly apposite way to think of yourself when watching it. You can strain to care about the obtuse narrative meanderings, but it is far easier and more satisfying to ignore plot and submerge yourself in the mire. The story nominally concerns an ongoing feud between the Greys and the Blacks, and the search for a missing doctor, but really this serves as an excuse for the camera to latch on to Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik). He’s one of the Earth researchers who has gone native and provides both a constant subject and perspective. The camerawork – impressively singular given the cinematography duties were shared between Vladimir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko – sticks to him sometimes arcing from POV to close-up in a single shot. But the line between man and surroundings is imperceptible and caked with mud.
Both Bosch and Brueghels have been cited as visual influences, and the array of grotesque asides fit this comparison perfectly, but there is less distance than in their work. Hard to Be a God gets under your skin but holding you unwaveringly close to the characters’ own; so close that its hard not to conjure the odour of rain and excrement. For what is ostensibly high-concept Science Fiction, any allegory is far more experiential than theoretical. German rubs your nose in the filth – perhaps of Soviet Russia, as in the original 1964 novel of the same name; perhaps of a debauched and cruel contemporary world – but it is the you that will need to decide what it is you smell. Either way, the stench is absolutely engrossing and unlike much that you’ve encountered before.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson