By Michael Sicinski
Hard to Be a God
Dir. Aleksei German, Russia, Kino Lorber
The late Aleksei German’s final film, Hard to Be a God, is surfacing in New York a full fourteen months after it was first unloosed on the world. This is the sort of cinematic object that doesn’t lend itself to glitzy galas or plum festival berths, although the ever perspicacious programmer and current head of the Rome Film Festival, Marco Mueller, did give the film pride of place upon its world premiere there in 2013. Hard to Be a God played a few other festival dates (most notably in Rotterdam early last year), but missed the well-oiled Cannes/Venice fast track that designates world cinema’s Hits of the Year. This is oddly fitting. Hard to Be a God is really more of a mud-encrusted artifact, a work that, with its crisp, telegraphic black-and-white cinematography, nevertheless radiates a shit-soaked ambience of film brun. One could easily imagine German’s masterwork flickering through the gate in projection booths and then deposited in serpentine curlicues directly into a wet open pit, to be fermented like kimchi or composted like coffee grounds and eggshells. This is a film whose basic premise—a hypothetical alien future that mimics human civilization’s barbaric past—sadly only gains in sharpness as it, and we, decay.
Like his fellow Russian master Aleksandr Sokurov, German had a film career that was largely kept in the can due to Soviet censorship. In fact, the awkward, nonlinear timeframe of this official repression and its relaxing during the Gorbachev era bears a certain comparison with that past-future confusion in Hard to Be a God. While Western masters got to develop audiences for their oeuvres title by title, German’s suppressed films appeared after various delays and bans by Soviet authorities. His fourth film as solo director, My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1984), went from being a non-object to an acknowledged Soviet masterwork. A mood piece about the optimism and hope just before Stalin began his infamous purges and show trials, Lapshin had to wait for Soviet policy to change its mind about Stalin and official history, until it could display with tender poignancy what everyone already knew.
A true avant-garde work, Lapshin provided a glimpse of “official history” to come, giving vision to the memories of ordinary Soviet citizens who could not forget what they had seen. In this, it bears comparison with the early historical works of Andrej Wajda and Hou Hsiao-hsien, or more recently, Apichatpong’s “Primitive” project. Still, German remained largely out of favor with the authorities at Mosfilm, and after numerous aborted efforts, he was finally able to complete his fifth film a full fourteen years later. As yet unavailable on home video, Khroustaliov, My Car! has attained a kind of legendary status among critics and hardcore cinephiles over the years. In descriptions of Khroustaliov, one almost always encounters the word “phantasmagoria,” and with good reason. Following one Dr. Glinsky through three treacherous nights in Moscow as Stalin is about to die and the Soviet apparatus is on high alert for any perceived power grab, the film has very often been described as incomprehensible, a semi-random chain of actions which themselves can barely be discerned, much less link up into any narrative meaning. While this is a bit disingenuous—it becomes clearer on multiple viewings, if never exactly a model of Hollywood-like economy—German’s Number Five is indeed playing with a full deck. Instead of placing its spectator at a distance and explicating for him or her “an atmosphere of confusion and paranoia,” Khroustaliov throws us right into the muck. (The title is a random order issued by a military officer, a throwaway in the context of the film itself. This perfectly encapsulates German’s attitude toward signposting and exposition.) Numerous sources have reported that Martin Scorsese, when serving as Cannes jury president, loved the film even as he freely admitted that he didn’t understand it, and wanted to award German the Palme d’Or. (The prize that year ended up going to a great filmmaker’s worst film—Theo Angelopoulos’s Eternity and a Day—a clear compromise vote.)
It’s entirely possible that Hard to Be a God will court similar misunderstanding. Like Khroustaliov, it yokes its audience to a character who is basically helpless, more an observer of historical tragedies than a conventional protagonist who might intervene in them. However, this film at least benefits from having a literary template that serves as a roadmap for the viewer gone astray. German’s opus maximus is actually the second film adaptation of the 1964 novel of the same name by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the same Soviet titans of speculative fiction whose 1972 novel Roadside Picnic provided the source material for Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. The first Hard to Be a God film, completed in 1989, could in certain ways be considered a kind of dry run for this new version: the Strugatskys wanted German to direct, but apparently this wasn’t possible due to the Soviet/West German coproduction structure, so the brothers had to settle for German helmer Peter Fleischmann. They weren’t happy with him or his work and subsequently fled the project.
The first Hard to Be a God is not without interest. Werner Herzog appears in a small role, and the great arthouse scenarist Jean-Claude Carrière does his level best to sculpt genuine speakability from the brothers’ dense, metallic Russian prose. Nevertheless, Fleischmann’s effort has the unavoidable look and feel of a late entry in the low-budget Eurotrash canon, that temptingly disreputable corner of film knowledge that tends to elevate Italian “sword-and-sandal” cheapies and Swedish softcore into minor-league cult items. It’s a brownish, grungy affair, and yet somehow feels simultaneously as ersatz as a Styrofoam boulder. Fleischmann’s God conveys an otherworldliness that ends right beyond the camera’s gaze.
German, meanwhile, had reportedly wanted to make Hard to Be a God throughout his career, and it’s easy to imagine that the Fleischmann film’s existence only egged him on. After submitting oneself to German’s final film—and it is indeed a process of submission, far more than a conventional viewing experience—it is difficult to refrain from entertaining a rather morbid thought: This is the kind of film that kills its maker. Now, let’s be rational. German died of heart failure, aged 74, and not on the cross of cinema. Hard to Be a God is a film that, if nothing else, displays the horrors of superstition, and there are far too many silly notions about great artists being felled by their final works.
Rather, Hard to Be a God is the movie German wanted to make his entire career, and as one watches it, it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the sense that this man threw everything he had into this unremitting vision of civilization’s undoing. German’s film is such an all-enveloping experience that, while immersed in it, I found myself more than once thinking of poor Caden Cotard, the artist/delusional madman at the center of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. How does one spend decades creating a singular universe, particularly a light-sucking vortex like Hard to Be a God’s Planet Arkanar, and not become subject to its darkness?
This is, in essence, the theme of both the novel and German’s film. Hard to Be a God is about being stuck in a world of horrors, and ostensibly being its overlord (or director) yet unable to change its fundamental reality. But what makes German’s Hard to Be a God so extraordinary—and what he adds to both the novel and the previous film—is his unique exploration of film’s potential, particularly with respect to point of view, to implicate both himself and the spectator within this crisis of observation (something Fleischmann’s conventional adaptation pointedly does not do). If German has made another “tough sit” of a film, it’s because all those old saws of film theory and “identification” (we are the camera; we are the protagonist; we are in the now; we are in a fictional past) are collapsed, locking us into near-total paralysis before medieval savagery. We “identify” with the very inability to intervene, which is, of course, a basic condition of cinema.
The basic plot of Hard to Be a God involves a kind of collapsed time, placed within a futuristic meta-scenario. (This enfolding happens within the Strugatskys’ “Noon Universe,” a cross-novel time-world, although German wisely makes no allusion to this wider net.) Members of an advanced human civilization have discovered planets, such as Arkanar, where Hard to Be a God takes place, which are themselves populated by humans. However, their civilizations have progressed at different rates. Arkanar is stuck in the Middle Ages, and can’t seem to get its Renaissance going, largely due to the ruling horde’s tendency to slaughter anyone who can read or write. (These dangerous individuals, referred to as “wise guys,” are either tarred and feathered or, in a pinch, simply drowned in the public shithole.)
We spend the entirety of the film following the stymied progress of an observer (Leonid Yarmolnik) sent to Arkanar from the advanced culture. As a disguise, he has assumed the role of Don Rumata, a nobleman who died some years ago. Rumata’s superior weaponry, his imperviousness to the local diseases, and general non-medieval bearing, have allowed him to propagate the rumor that he is descended from gods, and is therefore mortal but largely untouchable (cf. Emperor Hirohito), and should be understood as being somehow apart from the religious and territorial struggles going on around him. Don Rumata moves through the villages, eating the peasants’ eggs, screwing the least disease-ridden maiden available (Laura Lauri), shoving and slapping those who get in his way, and, when threatened, making a show of snapping the soldiers’ rotten spears in half with his bare hands. In short, Rumata is as transcendent as an immanent being can be, an embedded observer who has “gone native” to the extent that it suits his needs.
This is where we meet Don Rumata, anyway. We enter the world of Arkanar in medias res, which is fully appropriate. Hard to Be a God is a film that is composed of several long Steadicam follow-shots, emphasizing the movement of Don Rumata through space. (The one obvious flaw in Hard to Be a God, or at least the formal element hardest to reconcile with the rest of the film, is the use of several sudden fades to black, followed by the start of new follow-shots. These edits, I would guess, were attempts in postproduction to manage transitions German had not entirely finished, but I cannot say for certain. They just don’t fit.) Despite this emphasis on Rumata’s actions and motion, the film doesn’t unfold in real time; this isn’t a mash-up of Andrei Rublev and Russian Ark. But our experience of the film is generally one of forward propulsion, a motility that exceeds our understanding of motivation. That is, we are hurtling along with Rumata and, much like with Khroustaliov, only moments later do we get our bearings, gaining a sense of where we are and why we’re seeing and hearing things. And then, off we go again.
We are told, obliquely, that Don Rumata has been instructed not to meddle with the course of development on Arkanar. This is a common enough trope in science fiction and especially time travel. (“Any change could have a massive unforeseen impact on the future!”) But there is an additional sense of old-school anthropological anti-interventionism underpinning the attitude here. Rumata is supposed to walk a fine line, essentially observing these disgusting wretches without affecting any undue shift in the course of their development. At the same time, he is charged with protecting the culture’s “organic intellectuals,” to borrow Antonio Gramsci’s language—those folks who are decidedly part of the Arkanar fabric and who would, left to their own devices, drive this world forward if they could avoid being burned at the stake. One of these is Dr. Buda (Evgeniy Gerchakov), a chemist and physician who is being hunted by Don Reba (Aleksandr Chutko), the local majordomo who has already put several other “wise guys” to death. Don Rumata does manage to protect Buda. However it soon becomes clear that it is a waste of time. Once Reba establishes The Order (a Christian-fascist dictatorship set on codifying the dominant superstitions into law), Don Rumata abandons Arkanar to choke on its own swill.
The manner in which German depicts this world is, of course, thoroughly hideous, and Hard to Be a God’s unremitting three-hour tour makes for a pungent yet oddly cleansing viewing experience. This is as tactile and visceral as cinema gets, and at the same time our cognitive faculties are stretched like taffy, struggling to connect one peasant to another or suss out which warring faction is which. One imagines that Theodor Adorno, never the latitudinarian where art and especially cinema were concerned, might have approved of German’s 180-minute Rabelaisian acid test. But German’s achievement lies less in his creation of a fetid faux-medieval blunderland than in how he encourages us to see and even participate in it.
One of the notable formal features of Hard to Be a God is the instability of camera identification. Usually we’re certain that we’re following Don Rumata, and that German’s two cinematographers are wending their way through the cramped sets—hazy fog, hanging animal entrails, random metalwork, and the odd assortment of splayed, pustule-ridden bodies—so as to keep us in line with his vision. However, frequently the fourth wall is randomly broken, and a pasty, inbred villager or a hairy, blood-dripping hulk will bob into the camera’s gaze and stare right at us, smile, and move on. German employs the “cinema of attractions” in a pre-avant-garde mode, practically channeling Méliès; the image becomes a semi-permeable container for objects and people to enter and exit, to violently thrust in and out of.
Hard to Be a God is not an experimental film, but its treatment of the frame, particularly in its first (less narrative-driven) half, reflects an experimental engagement with vision, a sense that even understanding this foreign world requires a retraining of our eyes. Although Tarkovsky is quite clearly a touchstone for German’s project, the experience of Hard to Be a God can be a bit more like watching the films of Jacques Tati. Multiple misdirections send our eyes all over the image; some key object (usually something that turns out to be menacing) seems to just materialize, but in fact it was there all along. In directly engaging with our own vision of this (admittedly artificial) medieval horrorscape, German both promotes and thwarts our identification with Don Rumata.
It’s not just that Rumata sometimes leaves the frame, or looks at us as though we’re additional companions. The crux of German’s radicalism is this: we are made even more aware of our status as helpless observers, “non-interventionalists,” than we would be by taking in the world of Arkanar strictly via Don Rumata. He does, after all, intervene eventually (it doesn’t go well), and he finally splits the scene. He can return to “the future,” whereas the camera remains behind. We, the viewers, are stranded in the Middle Ages. Or, since the film begins on Arkanar and not in Don Rumata’s universe, perhaps we were there all along. If the camera is an unstable identification point—sometimes it is addressed as “us,” sometimes not—we can at least be certain that in part it reflected the directorial gaze: German himself. Alas, the director has departed this earth, leaving Hard to Be a God as his final testament. Only we are left behind.
Hard to Be a God played January 11 as part of First Look 2015 at Museum of the Moving Image and opened at New York's Anthology Film Archives on January 30.