Aleksei German – Hard to Be a God (Russia, 2013)
Drama / Science Fiction / Dystopia
Leonid Yarmolnik / Yuri Tsurilo / Aleksander Ilyin | 170 minutes
Lost in time, lost in space, on a planet of filth and refusal, dampness and foul odours, we become the observers of a heathen society in the stranglehold of violence, ignorance and betrayal. Step into the black and white world of Arkanar and be awestruck and bewildered by this forsaken place. But be warned; you might not like what you find.
A world of mud
The product of Aleksei German’s lifetime of work, Hard to Be a God is an almost three-hour-long pseudo-documentary capturing the customary life of a scatological society from another planet seemingly stuck in medieval times, in a narratively complex and visually stunning piece. The process for the crafting of this tour de force was no less impressive as the final product, taking the director approximately 40 years to complete while having to deal with the repercussions of the passage of time, such as actors and crew members’ deceases, as well as the shifts in the political climate that resulted in delays in the scripting and filming process. Notwithstanding the adverse circumstances, the film was finally premiered in 2013, only a few months after the director’s passing.
The Gatopardo of Arkanar
The oeuvre focuses primarily on the life of Don Rumata, an erratic yet benevolent feudal lord from Earth that acts as the main authority figure of the community, as he struggles to find a balance between observing this society that refuses to progress on its own or violently interfering in such process but by doing so imposing his own values on them. The pseudo-medieval fatalism doesn’t stop there, as the main foundations of Arkanar’s society revolve around betrayal and feud, while books, art, universities and any other intellectual displays are not only frowned upon but severely punished.
By this point, it ought to be clear that Hard to Be a God is quite vast in its imagery, with most frames seeming to have been pulled straight out of a Bosch painting. However, this film is even richer –if possible– in its interpretative value; the idea of societal development as a highly violent process is present throughout the whole work, accompanied by a very Nietzschean approach of conflict as the motor of history. The main concept depicted in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s, Il Gatopardo is also present, with the idea of enforcing some sort of change so the status quo can remain the same. Additionally, and going by the auteur’s words, the film is also supposed to be a critique on Putin’s regime in his home country and a cautionary tale on the dangers of fascism and its voracious appetite for intellectual prowess.
Not enough water to wash away all the filth
If 40 years in the making sound like a long time for a film, one need only see the artistry with which this one was put together in the technical ground. From long, continuous takes of an average of 25 minutes to the intrusive POV camera that constantly interacts with the observed subjects, it’s not hard to draw parallels to cinéma vérité’s concept of the filmmaker as a “provocateur”. Moreover, with an opening scene that captures the feeling of looking through a keyhole, we are reminded of the aesthetic of the proverbial “kino-eye” of the also Russian Dziga Vertov.
Another element that facilitates our immersion into this European-with-Mesopotamian-undertones society are the richly crafted sets, the attention to detail expanded to the max as we are presented with grimy, character-filled mise-en-scenes that we can almost smell. Such complex aesthetics are also aided by the inclusion of wonderful sound mixing that enhances every single splash of mud and gurgling of innards or whatever human fluid that hits the floor. The lack of a soundtrack besides from the pieces performed on camera amplifies the documentary-like feeling, turning the viewing into an all-encompassing experience.
What is there on earth to find
All in all, Hard to Be a God is a challenging film; it takes patience and complete focus on the constructed world. It can be a punishing, sometimes outright disgusting work of art, it presents an extraordinarily hard to follow narrative and provides a at times downright sickening attention to the countless details shown on screen. A second or third viewing is almost required. However, if you are willing and able to lose yourself in this long lost and forgotten world that German forces onto the movie screen, you might not ever feel the need to ever leave again.
And what better way to enjoy such an grand scale and ambitious art project than on the big screen.
Hard to be a God is showing @ Schikaneder Vienna on the 17th and 20th of December as part of the Til Midnight Movies series. Get your tickets here!