Much has been vaunted and much has be forewarned about Aleksey German’s Hard to Be a God. Taking six years to film, taking most of his career to mount the production and still be have a finished edit when he died in 2013 it stands as the pinnacle in ambitious filmmaking.
Set on the planet of Arkanar, it is a world not-to-dissimilar to Earth but their culture has not developed beyond the medieval period. The story – and there is one despite many people claiming otherwise – sees an a scientist sent from Earth living under the guise of Don Ramata (Leonid Yarmolnik). Claiming to be descended from heavenly bodies he oversees the inhabitants of his township without much interference. When a new mayor is declared in the town a Stalinist purge begins which sees other nobles and intellects or “smart arses” as the film refers to them being systematically wiped out. Wanting to remain as impartial as possible Don Ramata attempts to smuggle some away from the carnage whilst also taking care for a young woman carrying his child. Increasingly the violence becomes much too intense as Don Ramata see his other scientist friends (who have also taken on roles as Barons and Generals) being killed which leads him to a his violent boiling point.
So that’s the basic plot but as mentioned you could be forgiven for missing one entirely because on the surface Hard to Be a God appears to be about little more than grim absurdity and absolute, violent horror of life. German came as close as any filmmaker I can think of to depicting hell on camera. With some of the finest set dressing I’ve ever seen the world of Arkanar is a rain soaked, shit stained, piss smelling scrap heap. Even the audio, which appears to have been post-dubbed, features little ambient noise. All that can be heard are voices, lending the film a sort of sound chamber-like quality which just makes the whole world feel clammy. Every character in the film is either smeared in feces, scars or mud. People are tortured and stabbed in brutal fashion and everyone seems delightfully mad.
Some have commented that the film reminds them of Monty Python & The Holy Grail. In some instances it genuinely does feel reminiscent. Groups of cackling peasants being mocked by Don Ramata as he smacks them with his sword feel like scenes taken from the Python scriptures. Even the sped up style of movement rings a bell. It has to be said that if you chose to Hard to Be a God could be viewed as an absurdist comedy.
The camera never stops moving. German allows scenes to play out in long ten minute takes which allow the camera to roam around rooms filled with constantly changing faces. Often the muddied folk look straight into camera, the reasoning for this being that for a lot of the action the camera is on the head of a scientist who is sending these images back to Earth. Chickens are thrust in front of the camera, naked backsides and much, much more. If the film was not three hours long it would require repeat viewings just to take everything in. There is so much going on in every frame it is impossible to take it all in. Choosing to shoot with short lens gives the visuals an enormous depth-of-feel but makes all the actions incredibly claustrophobic. You will feel as though you are being shoved around by the laughing hordes.
Oh yes this pleasurable experience is three hours long. There lies the big question is Hard to Be a God worth it? The film lover who enjoys a good story and neat package of a production told with pace and panache a serious and profound no. Go nowhere near it. It does not care for your company and you will not care for it. This is a film aimed for cinemas devotees who marvel at technical engineering within the confines of storytelling, people who appreciate allegory more than plot and just the absolute audacity to commit something as uncompromising and visually breathtaking as Hard to Be a God. It is a film that will be discussed by film scholars for years to come.
Disgusting, impenetrable, confusing, hard to love and for a sci-fi film on an alien planet it lacks any astronauts. But dammit I admire the hell out of it. Clearly the culmination of a careers work for German it would have been fascinating to see how he might have topped it. Off the back of this I am now going to watch the Polish sci-fi On the Silver Globe, apparently there’s at least people in space suits. It’s Hard to Be a Viewer sometimes.
Dir: Aleksey German
Scr: Aleksey German, Svetlana Karmalita
Starring: Leonid Yarmolnik, Evgeniy Gerchakov, Valeriy Guryanov
Prd: Viktor Izvekov, Leonid Yarmolnik
DOP: Vladimir Illin, Yurly Klimenko
Music: Viktor Lebedev
Run time: 177 mins
Hard to Be a God is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from 14 September from Arrow Films.