Hard to Be a God

07/27/2015

Russia / 2013 / Russian

Directed by Aleksey German

With Leonid Yarmolnik, Yuriy Tsurilo, Aleksandr Chutko

Still from 'Hard to Be a God'Don Rumata awakens in his room, squeezes the greasy nest of hair on his head, and remembers his grandmother back on planet Earth. He seems to live in a reliquary or a medieval prop closet, surrounded by anthropomorphic suits of armor and Chaucerian paintings. Encircled by cangue-wearing slaves who are tethered by chains and don’t have any conceivable function, he greets the day by blowing a mournful jazz line on his saxophone. Water drips from the ceiling, draughts and fog seep in through the cracks. On this planet, when it’s not torrentially raining – or snowing – a sticky, gray mist coats everything. We have been lowered into the depths of his world. It isn’t pretty, but he relishes it.

Hard to Be a God is the final magnum opus of Russian filmmaker Aleksey German. It was the film he had always wanted to make, preparing and thinking about it for decades, and died before it was complete. It seems that he spent all that time not puzzling over how to recreate the intricacies of the Strugatsky brothers’ novel onscreen, but instead refining and elaborating his own, unique vision, a mammoth of invention and detail. Incidentally that vision is a ceaselessly, totally disgusting one, a geek show challenging the audience gleefully. It has little in common with a historical epic, certainly not science fiction, and only a skeletal likeness to the book. It’s more like a surrealist play, where people mutter things like “fish like milk” and “the mice lick the lard”, and spit in one another’s eye.

The town of Arkanar twists around a hill like an amphitheatre with a cesspool at the bottom, parapets sinking into mud. This is a place where anyone who thinks has been killed off or has fled to a distant city. In the vacuum, casual violence and lunacy reign. Anyone left is either a blithering idiot or a violent bully, or some amalgam of the two. Characters are continually smearing themselves with sticky substances, holding things in front of one another’s noses to smell, and otherwise displaying hitherto unrepresented forms of buffoonery. It can be hard to peer around the sideshow elements of the film, since they are (often literally) thrust in our faces. But that which makes it revolting also makes it unique. The many details sweated out for years make it all the more an Aleksey German production.

People who can’t make hide nor hair of it frame it with what little backstory there is: this is an alien planet, and Rumata is a scientist who was sent from Earth as an observer, and the people on this backward, dark ages planet think he is descended from the god Goran. There are other scientists too, whom he sees once in a while, but his main companions are his many underlings in the town of Arkanar, whom, for some reason, he leaves his castle to meet in a round of visits. Evidently he and his colleagues had hoped to view some kind of cultural renaissance in action like the one that happened on Earth. That never arrived, and instead the society propelled itself further and further into the dark ages with book burnings and hunts for redheads and suspected redheads.

Still from 'Hard to Be a God'“It’s hard to be a God,” Don Rumata says a couple of times during the film – one of the few lines in it that seems to issue from a coherent thought. It’s the message he wants sent back to Earth while he stays behind. It may be all he’s learned on Arkanar, having regressed so totally in his time there. But it seems disingenuous – while he is forced to witness suffering all the time, he is also the cause of so much of it. He doesn’t have the disgust or detachment, or the yearning for home that would mark the usual protagonist in a science fiction adventure. He isn’t the voice of modern reason in the chaotic darkness, but its chief bogeyman. Well, second to Don Reba, his rival, whose secret police have been killing the “brainboxes” and “wise guys” responsible for writing books, creating art, or otherwise challenging his ascendency.

Evidently Don Rumata’s sole instruction was not to interfere with their world, but plainly has disregarded that. He is more of an antagonist and, like a powerful jester, he goads and instigates, abuses his power to its limit. Nothing bothers him, except the threat of falling out of favor with the natives. The one grain of beauty that’s remained with him is his love of music. He’ll occasionally belt out the same tune to the tin and uncomprehending ears of the townsfolk; or we’ll hear one of them playing jazz, as he’s taught them, on their primitive horns.

Like his fellow scientists, he must have realized immediately that it was necessary to fully dunk himself in the shark tank if he wanted to survive in it, to bully, beat up, and even kill people, to own slaves and inhabit the role of a god incarnate. In such a place it is necessary to thrust your hands into the mire so as not to drown in it. In order to rule over these cruel, naive people, brain-damaged by poverty and backwardness, he must be the worst of them all, and he does so with world-weary ease. His machinations barely register because the standards for guile are so unbelievably low. Only once or twice does someone question whether or not he is truly a god, and he dispatches them like a half-awake person fixing their morning coffee. At one point he pulls off a guard’s nose and then wipes the resulting mucus on the man’s clothes.

In Arkanar life is so cheap that no one even wants it. The viscera unraveling from someone’s stomach is a cause for laughter, the hangman decorates his collection of twirling corpses, and torturers devise a spring-loaded, barbed phallus for dispatching “whores”. So it’s a puritanical place on top of being altogether corporeal. Again, no renaissance has come along to show people the beauty of the human body; no one even bothers to wipe the human body off after defecation.

Still from 'Hard to Be a God'Like a depressed Caligula, Don Rumata pushes people around, so easy and almost compulsory is it. When Don Reba’s gray-clad comes to arrest him, he entertains them by sticking a spear point into his head, before beating them up. They’re so terrified that no one wants to lay a hand, and instead they drop a giant net on him. A holy order, with a large army of followers, is in resurgence, and has begun storming Arkanar and doesn’t seem to care either way if he’s a god. The little information about what is going on pops up in brief voice-overs.

Of course many questions persist, but they don’t seem worth wondering over. What is the point of ruling a place like this? Moreover, how could these rude but nonetheless deliberately-made structures even exist? How could metal be smelted in a world where everyone is a village idiot, where the abbots run the show, and where it rains constantly? There is such a thing (indeed, a common one) as civilizations “forgetting” hard-won ingenuity. Take dark ages Europe as an example. So maybe that’s what’s gone on here, and it could be that this is the most recognizably science fiction element in the film. It’s a portrait of a collapsed society, everything that caused it to cave in on itself so manifest on the surface of daily life. Pigs wallow in shit, not caring where it comes from. Or perhaps they do so because it is their own product.

More than likely, the science fiction conceit is more an excuse to ramp up every possible unpleasantness, to not have to call it an image of medieval Europe and have to answer for the film’s excesses. German seems uninterested in leaving any of the back-story, the flashbacks to Rumata’s life on Earth, even most of the explanation of the detailed world the Strugatskys created. In a sense any of those things would compromise the totality of what he wanted to commit to the screen. In the tradition of Terence Malick’s screen adaptation The Thin Red Line (1998), the film envelopes – essentially digests – its source material to excrete something that is narratively (if not wholly) incommensurable.

Like Andrei Rublev, the film was a long time coming out, and its rumblings could be heard a long way off. In the case of Tarkovsky’s film, it was suppression that delayed its release by years. Hard to Be a God was put off continually over the decades, but that just gave it more time to percolate (perhaps “ferment” is  a better term for it) in German’s mind. He had originally drafted a script with the Strugatsky brothers in the late 1960s. It is unclear if he kept any of his notes. Finally it was shot over a period of six years, finishing in 2006. A loud-mouthed Gargantua – birthed with difficulty – the film thuds, singularly, across the Earth. And, like a Rebalais, German has invented a new vocabulary to communicate it properly.

Still from 'Hard to Be a God'Ardak Amirkulov’s film The Fall of Otrar (1991) (for which German and his wife, Svetlana Karmalita, wrote the screenplay), set during Genghis Khan’s rise across Asia, evokes medieval decay in a more classical way, without all the visual tomfoolery of Hard to Be a God. German’s film does assimilate conventions of how movies represent the middle ages, but excretes them in a way that is best described as disjecta membra, and with Theatre of Cruelty-style involution. Rather than one or two scenes of grotesque bacchanalia, the film delivers them ceaselessly, for its three hours. German, perhaps dissatisfied with the artifice that props up any movie set, frames with easily-noticed edges that can’t be seen or they’d spoil it, decided to ridicule artifice, to challenge it, by making it so encompassing. He created the entire world, which doesn’t have borders, or limitations. Hard to be a God, indeed. But what a world he was stuck with. Like Don Rumata’s pox-ridden lackeys, no one wanted this empire; it is German’s and German’s alone. For the taking.

The encompassing nature of the sets allows the camera to wheel, maudlin like the characters, this way and that, its wide-angle lenses capturing swarming activity at every possible corner. While Don Rumata is in mostly every scene, his activity is often obscured by people leering into the lens and laughing maniacally, or foreground objects standing in the way or taking up the frame entirely. It’s supposed to seem like documentation for posterity, and Don Rumata is clearly hamming it up. We smell the stenches, feel the rain, have chicken’s feet waved in our faces. We’re as immersed as he is, pulled about by the insanity of the place, with no choice in the matter.

Each protracted take is like a performance happening, and the involvement of the camera makes it a character in itself. There’s no fourth wall; there isn’t any wall, just the unabating claustrophobia and tedium of these nonsensical scenes. It’s a type of partially improvised decadence, of controlled chaos, common to Western cinema of the 1970s (which the Soviet Union wasn’t really allowed), pent up over decades and taken to a new sensory level.

At one point a few decades ago films took a U-turn from idealizing past eras, to go further in the opposite direction, revising them as more fluid-smeared, more depraved. The aging critic Herman G. Weinberg complained that the decadence supposedly satirized in Satyricon (1969) was inextricable from that which Fellini himself represented, that the lines of dialogue could have been anything, and indeed seemed that way to him.

Still from 'Hard to Be a God'While Hard to Be a God comes from a different place altogether, it has some similarities with Fellini’s film. It lacks characters in the same way, just having snorting, spitting, faces, perpetually twitching, and bodies, already deformed but contorted further by being stretched into the film’s fish-eye lenses, in a perpetual-motion spasm. Diane Arbus grotesques and Joel-Peter Witkin flesh constructs crowd the frame, twist into our line of sight and muddle about. Like Satyricon, Hard to Be a God is using its excess as a means to comment on the contemporary environment, not to render the past hyperreal, as Hollywood tends to. It’s over-the-top luridness is itself trying to say something. But what? The science fiction is a smokescreen, and so are the middle ages. But we are left with little to ponder when the smoke has dissipated.

German isn’t known as a prolific director. In 45 years he completed six films. Like this one, the amount of time he put into it shows, for better or worse. His film previous to this one, Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998) is similarly a symphony of commotion, but it tempers its furious visual invention, its austerely carnivalesque barrage, with moments of repose, albeit brief ones, to mix things up. That film achieves a run-down, Stalinist baroque through elaborate chains of whip-pans, strange coincidences, and the hand-held traversal of deep, cluttered spaces. Elements that would otherwise look like artless mistakes – a blurry object swinging into the foreground, a hot light flaring up and contaminating everything, an actor casting a sheepish glance across the frame – are instead stitched into its drunken, endlessly crenelated patchwork. What makes it great is what also makes it maddening. An assured work of art.

While that earlier film presents its dreamlike inconsistencies as half-remembered or conjectured episodes from childhood. German’s cover in Hard to Be a God is the pervasive idiocy of Arkanar. It’s the dark ages – you can say or do anything, as long as it’s not heretical. Khrustalyov, My Car!, also done in black and white, diffuses light through gauzy sheets of grain. In Hard to Be a God, things are more trenchant, every texture protruding to varying degrees in the disgusting clarity of the image.

But Khrustalyov, My Car! has a sense of propulsion if not continuity; the countless people who pass through it seem on an extended, insane tear. In Hard to Be a God, a strange torpor takes hold almost from the outset, as it becomes clear that no narrative economy will be helming it, only a rush of sensations, a slew of visions. This results in a feeling of monotony in the viewer, similar to that which is induced by a bumpy car ride with no seat belt; it is quite varied, each jostle sending us in a different direction, but our control over what we can perceive has been forfeited to such an extent that the only choices remaining are restless fatigue or complete submission. You want to hold it in your attention, but it tumbles out of your grasp like a sac of baby spiders burst open.

Since synch sound tends to limit what you can achieve visually in a scene, all of the sounds were done after the fact. This is very common in Russian films of German’s era, and it allowed the crew to pour their energy into the imagery of each scene. German was at the laborious sound design phase when he passed away in 2013. (His son took over post-production and completed the film).

Still from 'Hard to Be a God'People don’t so much converse as blurt terse nonsequiters. Since all the lines were recorded as A.D.R., it can be hard to tell who is murmuring at any one time. It doesn’t, as a rule, seem to matter, as the lines rarely connect in any logical way. They come across like the inane, entrancing auto-captions of a youtube video.  It could be the translation to English, but they appear largely dadaist, and would be frustrating if there were any discernible narrative to follow. Thankfully any story is mostly submerged in the hustle and bustle, which doesn’t exactly detract from the experience. Infrequently we get a glint of it, like the scales of a pursued fish just beneath the water. Thus its tangents don’t feel like tangents, its grotesque diversions all part of the tapestry.

It’s hard to imagine what German had set out to achieve. If it was an indictment of an anti-intellectual regime (and he lived and worked through an unending parade of them), why did he go so overboard with this film? The pat answer is that the swamp is all around, and in Russia, there is no boat anymore from which one can go overboard. There is simply no exaggerating it. So he worked within his means, toiled all his life, and this is the vision that has been left behind. But soft, there is a cinematic answer as well: that he set out to create something beguiling, critically untouchable, a final challenge to minimalist cinema, to “vegetarian films” as Raoul Ruiz put it, and everything that is yet to come. The gauntlet is slippery.

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