“This is not the earth. It’s another planet, the same as the earth, but about 800 years behind.” And so begins Russian film-maker Aleksei German‘s sixth and final film, originally released shortly after his death in 2013 and now available on an impressive and expertly packaged disc from Arrow Academy. Those few words of narration are the only real narrative signposting that this three hour, black and white quasi sci-fi epic cares to let slip. Beyond that, you’re on your own. Hard to Be a God, based on the 1964 novel by the Russian writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, works on a multitude of levels, and while the criticism it has often received for its alleged lack of plot is largely undeserved, its visual dynamism and thematic intent are more appropriate routes into this complex and unsettling work.
As film-maker and film historian Daniel Bird says on one of the disc’s impressive extras, Hard to Be a God does have a plot – it’s just not immediately obvious what it is. But once you’ve begun to piece together the film’s many fragmentary and disorienting set pieces, the core of the movie is actually quite simple. Events are seen largely through the eyes of Anton (Leonid Yarmolnik – colossal), one of several observers sent from earth to this near-identical planet and here operating under the guise of nobleman Don Rumata. Much of Hard to Be a God takes place in the Kingdom of Arkanar where Rumata has settled and now appears to rule over a populace not, it seems at first, entirely as respecting of his position as they might be.
The film’s unsettling opening foreshadows much of what is to come: the camera rests its unwavering gaze on a grimy pond as Rumata narrates. Within the surrounding settlement, the townsfolk, a mass of bedraggled, snaggle-toothed grotesques, shuffle through the mud and the rain. German’s camera almost can’t bear to look at them: nearly every frame inconceivably crowded with faces, feet, filthy hands. But German and his cinematographers, Vladimir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko, size them up as if they’re in a zoo and film them with a discomfiting deep focus. Characters often enter the frame in sidelong fashion, their words arriving some time before we see them; often they disturb the mise en scene as if an afterthought, though their involvement may be key. Elsewhere, on those odd occasions where a wider master shot allows some grasp of geography and scale, the attention to detail in terms of design and costume detail is quite staggering.
But it’s the film’s setting that dominates. Characters make constant reference to the season (“Autumn. It’s Autumn.”) and as much as the narrow side streets, the bustling market places with their hanging fish and the maze-like arrangements of corridors and rooms resemble Kings Landing with added Hieronymous Bosch, you daren’t even contemplate Arkanar’s Winter when it comes. This is an Autumn where rain is less of a weather feature and more of an atmospheric constant. People defecate freely in the streets, food appears largely in a post-meal rotting state, and no one has seen a bar of soap in an age. Robes are muddied and soaked, hair is plastered to peoples’ faces with a slick viscera of rain and scum. Early on, an elderly villager is casually executed in front of a barely interested crowd by being plunged into a public latrine head first. With such vivid presentation, brought gloriously to life on both set and location (much of Hard to Be a God was filmed in the Czech Republic) and beautifully presented here with a luminous high definition transfer, it’s easy to slip out of the movie as your sympathies drift towards the cast, whose endurance must have verged on the heroic.
Rumata negotiates this grim locale as he attempts to uphold the strictures of his mission: namely, observe but do not interfere. Those guidelines are of little help as he attempts to find a missing intellectual, a Doctor Budakh. Don Reba, the Prime Minister of Arkanar, has apparently taken Budakh prisoner against a series of ongoing attacks on academics and scientists. Rumata leaves the squalid sanctuary of the castle he shares with his lover, Ari, in a bid to solve the mystery of the missing doctor while all around him, the sub-medieval society appears to sink deeper into the all-consuming mud. His quest, though apparently slim, will have consequences for all come the film’s end.
Hard to Be a God is a tough watch. Its skewed POV (Rumata has what appears to be a camera fitted to his forehead and a handful of early scenes appear to be a blurry playback of his recordings), its scatological obsession and its languorous pace will be a test for most. Even German devotees may find their patience stretched if their expectations are too closely dependent on the director’s earlier work, a body of Stalinist era-set works that spanned three decades from the late 60’s. (Hard to Be a God, though released after German’s death, was his first film in 15 years and marked his return to the screen after the 1998 release of the féted – but hardly well known in the west – Khrustalyov, My Car!) In another of this release’s excellent extras, German’s widow Svetlana Karmalita (his co-writer for much of his career) speaks at a screening of the film. “I know the reactions to the film,” she says. “He who is able to enter the life of this civilisation, that planet, those relations, will do ok.” She pauses and smiles. “I should also say that those who cannot do it are right too.” Hard to Be a God is not for everyone, but that perhaps says more about the viewer than the film. It’s not necessarily that its scope and methodologies are too narrow to gain traction with a broader audience; it’s more the case that we, as that audience, are still exploring how best to fall in step with the depth and breadth of its unique and particular vision.
Arrow Academy’s presentation is clearly a labour of love – as it would have to be. The 1.66 framing is perfectly fitting for German’s intent – a wider look would have conflicted with the way he populates the screen. Bearing in mind that the film took six years to film and spent a similar time in post-production, it does look very impressive, its bright monochrome look the best – perhaps the only – vehicle for the film’s dank, sludgy setting where texture trumps colour.
Of course, tossing a film as demanding as Hard to Be a God out into the marketplace with little or no added value would be a thoughtless gesture, so plaudits for supplying a solid set of additional features. The aforementioned piece with Daniel Bird is an excellent starting point for those new to the film and he presents an authoritative overview of the film’s history and position in Russian and world cinema. A companion piece by Michael Brooke focuses on German’s broader work (though, it has to be said, while the content is fascinating and lovingly researched, Brooke is not a natural talking head and it becomes distracting after a while when you realise that he is not looking straight into the camera but to somewhere just left of centre: a niggle, nothing more.) The Svetlana Karmalita piece is essential, and congratulations to Arrow Academy for sourcing such a unique insight into her late husband’s work.
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