Hard to Be a God often gives the impression that it’s doing something remarkable—but after nearly three hours have passed, it’s clear that whatever that something is was never actually very clear. If a story exists, it’s told with little concern over whether the audience knows or cares who the characters are or what they are doing; if that isn’t the case, then an awful lot of dialogue is wasted talking about things like blacks, greys and redheads — whoever and whatever they are.
Which is a shame, because Aleksei German’s film is a stark, wild journey through medieval sci-fi filth. Like the drunken bastard child of a dreamy Andrei Tarkovsky epic and a Terry Gilliam yarn, in Hard to Be a God we see hints of Tarkovsky’s pensive takes, as well as his predilection toward existential speculative fiction (he adapted his 1979 film Stalker from a novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the same Russian brothers who wrote Hard to Be a God in 1964), coupled with a sort of sensory overload as German’s frames wander through countless intricate details that call to mind Gilliam, another director attracted to obsessive, timeless dystopia.
Sadly, Hard to Be a God marks German’s final film. With pre-production starting in the late 1990s, principale photography didn’t begin until 2006; German died while completing editing in 2013. Though he only made six features in his 46-year career, the Russian director has been revered for decades by a select few cinephiles, who generally point to his early work, like 1971’s Trial On the Road. German’s failure to find wider recognition can partly be attributed to his films’ reliance on cultural and historical references that may be difficult for non-Russians to comprehend. In this case, however, even memorizing the book might not make things that much easier to understand.
The plot is most salient in its opening voiceover narration: The story is set on a planet similar to Earth, but about eight centuries behind technology-wise. Having just quashed a would-be Renaissance, the ruling class has firmly planted this world in the Middle Ages. Thinkers, wiremen and artists were either driven out of the civilization’s capital, Arkanar, or imprisoned, tortured and murdered. Meanwhile, 30 scientists from real-Earth visit the planet to study it and follow its history—but not interfere. These interplanetary explorers are the titular gods, superior to the primitive people of this planet, yet unable to do anything but watch, and sometimes join in on all the filth-wallowing.
While the film’s premise and its environment are extremely compelling factors of its assured world-building, Hard to Be a God is only interested in dragging viewers through the excrement of the time period it emulates. Perhaps the film may have worked better with no pretense of narrative at all, but that opening voiceover suggests otherwise; what follows instead is than an endless trudge through mud, disease and the dark side of humanity.
Within an hour, Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) secures his position as de facto main character by being the most frequent face to pop up during all the gross chaos. He practices on a saxophone-like instrument and occasionally makes a literary reference, indicating that he’s one of the Earthlings; that’s pretty much it. We’re offered no sense of how long he’s been on the planet or whether his outlook has changed in that time. All we know is that he lives in pools of feces.
Still, the one aspect of the film that never disappoints is its production design, helmed by Sergei Kokovkin and Georgi Kropachyov. It stands the test of Vladimir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko’s roaming aesthetic, which floats intimately through all the muck, providing few scenarios which would allow easy workarounds like composite shots or matte paintings. Fog is the film’s only asset that could really be called a cheat, but it’s always utterly organic to the setting. Characters traipse through village streets, past hangings and public shamings, in and out of forts and prisons and who knows what else, while the deep-focus, black-and-white cinematography provides full view of the people and things in front of and behind the action. In other words, the film’s camerawork seems to be adopting a series of point-of-view shots, except without the sometimes-crucial explanation of who’s eyes we’re inhabiting. Spears, hanging fish, and assorted peasants bump into the foreground in these over-crowded rooms; extras stop and stare directly into the camera with creepy smiles; the haunting experience that you’re actually there, watching everything unfold, is never far from the experience of watching this film.
But if you were there, you might be better equipped to know what’s going on. As breathtaking as Hard to Be a God often can be, it’s a monotonous slog. Each shot is impressive, but each shot does nothing to establish anything that wasn’t already established—by design no doubt, but that doesn’t make it any less of frustrating experience. With all the time German put into the film—and all that effort shows—he might have done well to consider how to better focus it. Tarkovsky may have a penchant for surreal confusion, but he anchors his oneiric sensibilities in characters’ motivations, desires, and souls. Here, there’s no real motivation, no real desire, and no real soul, just a crawl through depravity. But if that’s all you’re after, then here you go: this shit is executed majestically.
Director: Aleksei German
Writer: Aleksei German and Svetlana Karmalita
Starring: Leonid Yarmolnik, Dmitriy Vladimirov, Laura Lauri
Release Date: Jan. 30, 2015