Hard to Be a God | Aleksei German | Russia | 2013 | 170 minutes
James Kreul argues for more “hard films” in Madison as he discusses the last film from an often overlooked Russian filmmaker, the late Aleksei German.
If I were to describe Hard to Be a God in one word, it would be: viscous.
The setting, Arkanar, seems to ooze off of the screen. A voice over explains that the planet Arkanar is like Earth, but remains stuck approximately 800 years behind its development (using Earth’s Western civilization as a frame of reference). The air is wet and sticky, and the inhabitants slog through the mud, spitting and farmer-blowing their way through a miserable existence akin to Europe’s medieval period.
Hard to Be a God immerses you in this world, originally imagined by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in their 1964 novel of the same name. In the novel a group of Earth scientists have arrived on Arkanar with strict rules, like Star Trek’s “prime directive,” against intervening in its affairs or development. One scientist, known on Arkanar as Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) must temper his desire to fight the persecution of intellectuals (and, well, anyone with an education) that diminishes any hope that Arkanar will have its own cultural, social, and political Renaissance. Don Rumata has convinced the locals that he has descended from a god. But in this godforsaken place, even divinity does not make his life that much easier.
Thanks to deliberately obtuse narrative strategies by filmmaker Aleksei German, a more detailed plot summary might not help you. In one of the more intriguing reviews I read last year, Nick Pinkerton at Sight and Sound begins, “If you are reading this after you’ve seen Hard to Be a God, your reaction will be very like that of those critics reading the press notes after the film, a sigh of ‘Oh, that’s what was going on!’” I stopped reading at that point and waited for my opportunity to see the film.
Yep, it’s hard. One reason I selected Hard to Be a God for this Missed Madison project is because it exemplifies something woefully lacking in Madison’s film market: very hard films. As obtuse as Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin was, you could always lean on genre conventions to guide you. Here, there are extended scenes where you might not realize the primary goals of the characters or their conflicts. Not everyone feels comfortable with such viewing experiences, but we need to have more opportunities for them in local commercial theaters.
You’re never really “lost” in Hard to Be a God as long as you allow yourself to experience the vivid world German has created. The imagery provides more than enough for the eye and the mind to enjoy. That doesn’t mean you can disregard the plot completely; the emotional impact of key sequences depend on at least a cursory understanding of what is at stake. But you’re rarely completely certain about what’s going on, which can be overwhelming.
The cinematography by Vladmir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko includes the most vibrant and dazzlingly sharp moving images I can think of in recent years. The surface of Arkanar is disgusting; the surface of the image is luminously beautiful. It is quite jarring to combine wide angle, deep focus imagery with occasionally wobbly handheld camerawork. Combined with German’s unique staging strategies, the viewing experience becomes challenging but rewarding. Characters interweave in in all planes of action simultaneously, and occasionally even the extreme foreground is active as hands or objects protrude into the frame. Characters also occasionally glance back at the camera with bemused expressions, recalling circus clowns.
The second half of the film is a bit easier to follow. Even if you are confused about Don Rumata’s goal to save local scientist Budakh (Yevgeni Gerchakov) from Don Reba (Aleksandr Chutko), who has scapegoated all intellectuals as the root of problems in his kingdom, you at least understand that Don Rumata is wandering through a hostile environment.
It’s not always easy to keep track of who’s who, but some characters quickly become more vivid and memorable. A personal favorite is Baron Pampa (Yuriy Tsurilo), a large, lumbering, bumbling Falstaff-like figure who barrels his way through several scenes. One slowly begins to learn the social hierarchy based on cues in costume and production design. As social and political tensions escalate, violence of course ensues. And like the planet Arkanar itself, the violence is very messy.
German is probably the most important Russian filmmaker that you’ve never heard of. In his Sight and Sound survey of German’s career, Michael Brooke writes, “In Russia, German’s artistic reputation is now carved in granite: out of all the major post-Stalin Soviet directors, only Tarkovsky and Sergei Parajanov have garnered similar acclaim.” Madison audiences might be familiar with Germans 1998 feature, Khrustalyov, My Car!, which was poorly received at Cannes but has subsequently recovered in its critical standing.
German did not live to see the completed Hard to Be a God. He first conceptualized the film shortly after the publication of the novel in 1964. Filming did not commence until 2000, and did not complete until 2006. A long and complex post-production process, particularly for the richly dense and layered soundtrack, lasted several years until German’s death in early 2013. Aleksei, Jr. and his mother, co-screenwriter Svetlana Karmalita supervised the remaining post-production work and final sound mix.
Hard to Be a God is not a film for everybody, and you’ve probably figured out whether or not if it is for you by this point. But it is a film that everyone should have an opportunity to see. It’s the kind of film that will broaden your appreciation of what visual storytelling can be. And the first step in improving Madison’s film market will be to broaden our understanding of what the cinema can be.