Hard to be a God – Film Review by David Turpin
Directed by Aleksi German
Starring: Leonid Yarmolnik, Aleksandr Chutko, Evgeniy Gerchakov, Laura Lauri
Based on a 1964 novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (who are best known outside of Russia for writing the source novel for Tarkovsky’s Stalker), Hard to be a God is the monolithic final film by Russian auteur Aleksei German. After making only five features in his 45-year career, German died shortly after completing photography for the long-gestating Hard to be a God, leaving his wife and son to oversee much of the film’s post-production. Nevertheless, the result is not only unmistakably German, but also one of the most singular and uncompromising films of his, or any other, career.
Notionally a science-fiction piece, Hard to be a God takes place on the planet Arkanar, the society of which resembles that of 13th-century Earth. Scientists who visited this strange world in the hopes of civilising it have long since given up their goal, with their leader Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) now occupying the role of alternately beloved and feared demi-god for Arkanar’s beleaguered masses.
Hard to be a God is less a narrative than an experience, though, and its three-hour immersion in the bleakest cinematic vision this side of Béla Tarr is sure to leave even the hardiest viewers rattled. Resembling nothing so much as a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life, German’s film offers an unending series of grotesque images, all captured in luminous monochrome by Vladimir Ilin and Yuri Klimenko’s extraordinary photography. The sheer scale upon which its nightmarish world has been conjured is startling, as every inch of the screen seethes with microscopically detailed activity. The effect is genuinely transporting, although few would wish to experience Arkanar for themselves. Even German’s potentially illusion-shattering gambit of having his bedraggled cast glare straight into the camera serves only to heighten the verisimilitude, as they look alternately startled and quizzical at what this strange new technology might mean.
Ultimately, while Hard to be a God has the feel of an allegory, it refuses to yield an easy explanation. Arkanar, in a sense, embodies the idea of “history repeating” – its horrors and inhumanities standing in for all those of the twentieth century and beyond. The fate of the viewer, like that of Don Rumata, is to watch this grim cycle play itself out, while being powerless to intervene. The sensation will be an uncomfortable one for most – although hopefully few will find themselves pushed as far as Don Rumata into outright mania – but the sheer force of German’s vision demands to be seen. There is mordant wit here too, for those who care to look for it, although the abiding and indelible memory for most will be the hallucinatory power of the world German presents, its wretched population buried up to their necks in the futility of existence yet still, all but inexplicably, striving to live.