Hard To Be A God (Trudno byt bogom)
Russia (2013) Dir. Aleksey German
This isn’t the best way to open a review but I hardly understood what happened in this film. Even after consulting other reviews and articles for the plot it remains a mystery. Yet for 177 minutes I was transfixed on this harrowing opus, a decade plus labour of love for Russian director Aleksey German, who died before its completion.
Based on the 1964 novel Hard To Be A God by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, whatever allegorical or metaphorical message they were trying to impart fifty-one years ago, it would appear remains frighteningly congruent to today’s world.
The mud filled, diseased ridden, impoverished, uncivilised hell hole that is medieval Europe we enter into is in fact the planet Arkanar with a parallel history to Earth’s only eight-hundred years behind us. A group of scientists have travelled to Arkanar for observational purposes, finding it in a pre-Renaissance stage during a feud between the “Blacks” and the “Greys”.
With the stipulate that they mustn’t directly interfere in any way, the scientists find it hard to sit back and watch the resident intellectuals be killed off by a tyrant named Don Reba (Aleksandr Chutko). So, one of them, Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), joins the society with the intent of finding and protecting the remaining intellectuals, earning impunity by proclaiming to be the Son of God.
This is not a film which will pack them in at your local multiplex – no doubt most people will have fled at the near three hour run time before even hearing the words “black and white” and “subtitled”. For the more adventurous film fan, even with its impenetrable story and non-existent narrative this is a cinematic experience like no other and one that isn’t easily forgotten.
Visually its closest recent relative for this writer is Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England, both shot in black and white and possessing a medieval aesthetic, although Wheatley’s vast open spaces are supplanted here by intimate claustrophobia; elsewhere the randomness and surreal behaviour of the cast, both main and peripheral, will recall Monty Python And The Holy Grail, with the jury still out as to which is the more absurd.
Labelling this as sci-fi feels spurious, as the genre is not represented here besides the words “another planet” in the opening narration. The other scientists are never shown, Don Rumata has no communication device to contact them with, and he possess nothing anachronistic to upset the medieval diegesis, aside from what looks like a clarinet. Yet, the monochrome imagery and curious behaviour of the people makes for an otherworldly experience, thus we take the leap of faith to entertain the notion of this being another planet unconditionally.
German and his production team have created a remarkably authentic and believable medieval world, full of mud, blood and other fluids, peasants with dirty, sore encrusted faces, simple and unflatteringly drab attire. The people are often spitting, urinating, vomiting and emptying their noses at will while the rain falls and fog consumes the light to complete the depressing tableaux.
But it all feels incredible real and eerily infectious – one can almost feel the mud swirling around their feet or the growth of a cold sore on the lips as the peasants pass by the camera. Every time someone snorts mucus from their nose, one instinctively reaches for a tissue for their own, and pray thanks for the clean water and cooked food we get to consume, in favour of the grimy slop the cast eat, or more often than not, spit out.
Quite how German keeps us transfixed for such a lengthy period of time without a tangible storyline is part genius, part miracle. The plot dictates that this isn’t a film where “nothing happens” – plenty happens but that is largely its modus operandi. The action never stays still as something activity keeping the energy levels up, while the screen itself is largely cluttered with bodies at any one time.
Using hand held and fixed cameras, we are led to believe quite often that this is a POV style film as many people look into or talk directly to the camera, but if this is the case, no-one is ever revealed to be on the other side. The mise-en-scene is very much one of intimacy and getting into the heart of the action, recording everything no matter how gross or inappropriate it may be, keeping true to the primitive nature of the world it is observing.
The six years of filming – which began in 2000 – must have been hellacious for the cast yet they immerse themselves totally in their roles to such an extent that any notion they are acting or being directed seems almost impossible. The nuances of their timing, placement and body language and their natural behaviour adds plenty to the richness and depth of the film.
What it all means though is open to interpretation and everyone will have their own theory. Since I understood very little of it, I can only proffer this flimsy attempt: for Don Rumata, despite having the power and knowledge to change the world, it isn’t so easy after all. He found out the hard way by fully assimilating himself into the Arkanar way of life, resigned to the same fate of the others. And God or not, it’s a responsibility one shouldn’t take lightly.
Unfortunately for German, this mammoth project took its toll in early 2013 when he died during the seven year editing process, leaving it to his son and wife to complete. One can feel the passion and commitment German gave to the project and as a swan song, it is quite the ambitious note to end on.
A sublime but hard to watch epic, hopefully Aleksey German’s creativity, vision and passion found in Hard To Be A God will inspire other filmmakers in its wake. As for as a recommendation – unless you enjoy a real viewing challenge, best go look elsewhere for your next flick fix.