HARD TO BE A GOD (2013) review
written by: Aleksey German and Svetlana Karmalita
produced by: Viktor Izvekov and Leonid Yarmolnik
directed by: Aleksey German
runtime: 177 min.
U.S. release date: January 30, 2015 (New York) and June 6-8, 2015 (Chicago)
One thing is certain after watching Russian filmmaker Aleksey German’s posthumous film, “Hard to Be A God” – it’s definitely an experience. That much can definitely be said about this dense and dour black and white subtitled film that reaches almost three hours in length. I’m still registering it all, but my gut tells me I should be thinking of this film as something of a masterpiece, while my head tells me I should receive an award for enduring this examination of the gruesome and miserable side of humanity. The best way to describe the film is like some kind of anthropological documentary study by the likes of Terry Gilliam and Werner Herzog, but I feel like I’ll be gleaning more out of the film as I write this review.
Viewing “Hard to Be A God” or “Trudno byt bogom” had me revisiting another experience I’ve often found myself repeating over the years. That is, coming to a film with no prior knowledge of its director or anyone else involved. Which means, I’d never heard of German or the novel by Russian sci-fi writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky that he’s adapting here. What piqued my curiosity was the film’s synopsis….
“An earthling scientist 800 years in the future is sent to observe the backward alien civilization of a distant planet Arkanar and becomes worshipped as a god in a filthy and horrific medieval environment. He and his colleagues are unable to interfere violently and in no case can they kill, but it seems unavoidable for Don Rumata to take a stance, despite the consequences.”
That sounds interesting right there and being a sci-fi fan, I couldn’t help but think how it resembles an episode of Star Trek (I have “The Next Generation” in my mind, but insert your own away team preference) – especially the idea of exploring new civilizations and following The Prime Directive. If you don’t already know, The Prime Directive is a principle in the Star Trek universe followed by the United Federation of Planets which prohibits Starfleet personnel from interfering with the internal development of an alien civilization, especially those civilizations who are behind in their certain levels of technology, science and cultural development (which certainly applies to the medieval setting of Arkanar). Just imagine a Star Trek scientist on an away team (a blue shirt, if that helps) spending time with a pre-industrial society that resembles Europe during the Middle Ages, where intellectuals are violently persecuted and cruelty and stupidity is the norm.
The Earth scientist of “Hard to Be A God” is Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) and he’s spent twenty years among the Arkanarians, most of whom refuse his help. They’d rather live amongst their squalor, rubbing mud, blood and excrement on themselves and others. After all, they know nothing better. Yet many of them worship Rumata. It could be because he knows or offers them more. Regardless, since Rumata and his team were sent with the hope of witnessing some type of cultural renaissance, but all he and his colleagues can do is watch as the indigenous people fail to pull themselves out of the Dark Ages, the film’s title comes to the forefront.
The story follows Rumata’s dissent into complacency as he watches those who think freely get strung up or hung for all to see. His antagonist is Don Reba (Aleksandr Chutko), a nobleman set to take over the throne of Arkanar. Reba and a secret policeman does everything possible to suppress progress in science, art and literacy. In fact, the most common form of communication is incomprehensible singing, moaning, grunting, farting, pissing, spitting or vomiting. In no way is this a easy movie to digest.
Some of the information we receive in “Hard To Be A God” is given to us in a matter-of-fact voice-over. Mostly, it’s easy to make out what’s going on here, although it does demand every ounce of attentiveness you have to see this film through to its conclusion. If you stay committed to German’s film, you’ll wind up in some kind of trans-hallucinatory state, where images bleed together and indecipherable lines become a sort of demented poetry. Throughout the film, German shoots on hand-held that feels like we’re floating through the air on a macabre tour through thick fog and endless rain. Many of the figures come quickly in and out of the camera, as if they are floating ghosts, restless and moaning in pain.
Although there are times where “Hard To Be A God” is confusing to follow at time and its length will test your patience, it’s clear this is a work of art. Even when a sequence of frames are incomprehensible, there is still something beautiful and haunting to behold. Like all art, what one gleans from the film is subjective and dependent on the viewer – how attentive they are and where they’re at emotionally, intellectually, while watching.
“Hard To Be A God” took seven years to make and found German’s wife and son completing the film after he died in 2013 at age 74. It could be because it took so long and because the film has been molded by so many hands that it feels like there is room for interpretation beyond the obvious themes of political disarray and religious questions. Overall, watching the film feels like an endurance test. One thing repeated in my head while watching “Hard To Be A God” and that is how hard it was to be reminded that such a hellish humanity is inhabited by aliens and not Earthlings.
“Hard To Be A God” just finished a short run at the Gene Siskel Center here in Chicago, but definitely be on the look out for another theatrical run or an online and Blu-ray release.