DIR: Aleksei German • WRI: Aleksei German, Svetlana Karmalita • PRO: Viktor Izvekov, Leonid Yarmolnik • Music: Viktor Lebedev • DOP: Vladimir Ilin, Yuriy Klimenko • Ed: Irina Gorokhovskaya • Cast: Leonid Yarmolnik, Aleksandr Chutko, Evgeniy Gerchakov, Laura Lauri
The final film by Russian auteur Aleskei German, Hard to be a God had been in gestation since the late 1960s, when German first encountered the Strugatsky brothers novel upon which it is based. German, who made only five other features in his near half-century career, died in February 2013, shortly after completing photography for the film, the editing of which was largely overseen by his wife and son. It is difficult to imagine a more striking, or uncompromising, final statement from any filmmaker.
Like Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), which was also drawn from material by the Strugatsky brothers, Hard to be a God is nominally a science-fiction piece, although such a description might also be hopelessly misleading. The film takes place on Arkanar, a planet that is superficially identical to Earth – albeit a 13th-century Earth by way of Bruegel and Hieronymus Bosch. Scientists who travelled to this strange planet in the hope of civilising it have failed miserably in their goal, with the film’s notional hero, Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), now occupying the position of a strange kind of demi-god, alternately beloved and feared by the beleaguered masses.
Plot is of less consequence to German than the creation of an immersive world, and in this regard Hard to be a God is extraordinarily powerful. Shot in severe black and white, the film presents a seemingly unending sequence of indelible images – with grotesque ugliness coexisting with a strange, austere beauty. Its creation of a medieval environment is the most persuasive since Frantisek Vlácil’s Marketa Lazarova (1969) and the most imaginative since Vincent Ward’s The Navigator (1988), although neither of those films was realised on Hard to be a God’s towering scale. The effect is utterly, and often uncomfortably, transporting – never more so than when the ragged inhabitants of Arkanar abruptly stare directly into the camera, their simultaneously accusatory and uncomprehending expressions suggesting the unwitting subjects of a medieval Diane Arbus.
In the bleakness of its vision, and its preference for long takes, German’s film perhaps most recalls Béla Tarr – and it is every bit as challenging as that comparison suggests. There are even shades of Bruno Dumont in its strange combination of beauty and unflinching ugliness, although unlike Dumont’s recent P’tit Quinquin (2014), Hard to be a God makes every minute of its three-hour running time acutely felt. Most disconcertingly, while the film has the texture of an allegory, any definitive meaning proves elusive. Though it alludes, on a subterranean level, to the horrors of the twentieth century, and the perpetuation of these horrors into the twenty-first, the film refuses to allow the futility and derangement of its world to resolve into an easily digestible lesson for its audience. Arkanar is, in some ways, the ultimate embodiment of “history repeating”, but Don Rumata – like the audience – remains powerless to give meaning to its miseries. Depending on one’s perspective, this is either the film’s greatest strength or its most foreboding challenge. However one feels about it, though, Hard to be a God will prove impossible to shake.
12A (See IFCO for details)