Hard to Be a God (London Film Festival 2014) Review
Hard to Be a God
makes it hard to be a reviewer, given the gruelling sci-fi’s contradictions: a future set in the past; a masterpiece with little substance; a three-hour epic where everything and nothing happens at the same time. Adapted from a 1964 novel of the same name, Russian director Aleksei German spent his final decade before death shooting and editing the film, but had actually endured a much longer period on a script. The final product, emerging like the last survivor from a wasteland, is so bold and uncompromising that it feels – and smells – like a lifetime project.Snot, urine, shit, mud, dead animals – each frame is a twisted version of someone’s rendition of “My Favourite Things”. One of the few discernible plot points is how the action occurs on another planet that looks just like Earth 800 years ago (or 850 years now, I suppose). A few scientists visit from Earth to study inhabitants – seemingly cast for non-Hollywood looks – who proudly break wind, spread disease, and spit at each other’s faces. Everywhere is squashed with disease, dirt and a wry sense of dark humour. It’d surely be one of the most unpleasant filming experiences possible, if it wasn’t for how often the actors glance at the camera with a slight grin. They’re almost saying, “I can’t believe I’m doing this, and I can’t believe you’re watching this.”Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) ruminates on how difficult it is to be a God, without explicitly mentioning it’s because he isn’t one. When society is so chaotic, superiority is within the grasp of those willing to eliminate (and burn) potential enemies in a not-so-subtle analogy for Stalinism. Or maybe I’m wrong. Despite the detail, the repetitive tone never shifts; if you don’t get it at first, chances are you won’t be enlightened by the end. (Which almost excuses the numerous walkouts.)Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the authors of the How to Be a God novel, were also responsible for the novel on which Tarkovsky based Stalker. Having seen Stalker for the first time not that long ago, I sensed a running pattern in these cesspool planets which feature key scenes with dogs scuttling through the decay of mankind’s needless self-destruction. German does at least find some joy in his nihilistic comedy sketch – his crazed maniacs also happen to be dapper jazz enthusiasts.’Hard to be a God’ is playing London Film Festival 2014 as part of the Dare strand. Ticket information can be found here.