The paradoxical title of Hard to Be a God matches the paradox of its artistry in that its brilliant success makes it a tough sell for many viewers.
There are plenty for whom the phrase “three-hour black and white Russian film” already makes them reach for their gun, and this specimen immerses audiences in a free-floating fetid stew of medieval mud and bodily fluids populated by gibbering idiots and pustulant drunkards constantly spitting or upchucking. This grim panorama presents itself in the patented Russian manner of vivid historical cinema: a restless handheld camera (of which the gesturing characters are aware) executing complex pans and queasy staggers and focal shifts while looking up everyone’s nostrils. You can almost smell the farts and pop the zits.
By the way, Hard to Be a God is supposedly science fiction. You’d never guess it if a narrator didn’t inform us that the setting is another planet “just like Earth” but going through its medieval (European) period.
The protagonist (Leonid Yarmolnik) is supposedly one of a small band of Earth scientists, but we never see him do any science. A local lord, he wallows drunkenly and impulsively amid his slaves, suffering existential angst as gangs of official anti-knowledge thugs wander the land performing Inquisition-like massacres on any “wise guys” who are slightly educated or trained. He’s supposed to observe only, but that goes out the window.
As with all Russian historical films, it’s impossible to avoid contemporary connotations, since Russia always seem to repeat its history. During the USSR era, anti-fascist films set in WWII were handy ways of implying the heavy hand of the Politburo while changing the uniforms, while films with older settings could blame everything on aristocracy and the church. In the “making of” segment, director Aleksei German declares, with the frankness of the terminally ill, that Russians have a slave mentality and idolize their oppressors, and that his film’s hero parallels Putin’s trap as a leader in that he’ll have to kill somebody, so German just hopes “it’s someone else”. Write any protests to him, care of the next world.
He first scripted the project in the ’60s and was politically unable to continue, but he realized it was still valid and worked on it throughout the new century. The final touches were made by his wife and son after his death in 2013. You can spot the odd influence — a bit of Fellini here amid grinning grotesques, a spot of Bergman there in the punishing of penitents, perhaps a nod to Kurosawa’s Yojimbo in a wandering dog, and above all the saturation of Hieronymus Bosch in what comes across as a vision of low-contrast monochrome Hell.
More Russianly, there’s the Eisenstein of Ivan the Terrible (without the static shots), the Klimov of Come and See, and the Tarkovsky more of Andrei Rublev than Stalker, although the latter shares the Strugatsky Brothers as source novelists. Their 1964 novel (a new English translation was published last year) is packed with plot, which the film mostly replaces with atmosphere, although most of the film’s characters are taken from the book in some form.
Curiously, Werner Herzog starred in a 1989 German-Russian version directed by Peter Fleischmann; surely it would make a fruitful comparison (apparently it’s on Youtube). It would also be wonderful if German’s other five features, described in the helpful booklet, were easily available. For that matter, this is also true of Klimov’s films, and really most Russian cinema. Kino and Criterion, are you listening?
Although I didn’t count, German’s movie seem to use fewer than 100 shots in three hours. Formally and thematically, it’s an astounding achievement that will repulse those looking for feel-good affirmations and attract those looking for astounding formal achievements. Personally, I found it unpleasant to endure but, having lived through it, the images reverberate through my skull with a buzz of massaging little-used areas of the cerebrum.
In an extra, German’s widow states that viewers who can’t take the movie “are also right”, but that if you can sit through the first half, the rest won’t bother you. You must already know into which sticky camp you fall, Dear Reader.