A submission from guest contributor Herbie Cuffe
Recommended Viewing Situation
For when you’ve just watched Andrei Rublev and you’ve concluded that, yeah it was all right, but what it needs is less Gnosticism and more excrement.
Running Time: 177 minutes.
Format: 35mm Black and White film.
Director: Aleksey German.
Writer: Svetlana Karmalita, Aleksey German, Boris Strugatskiy and Arkadiy Strugatskiy.
Awards: White Elephant Prize for best cinematographer and more.
“The fact that I’m talking to you doesn’t mean we’re having a conversation.” I laughed out loud at this line the first time I saw Hard To Be A God, despite wondering if the joke was on me. After all, this is spoken over two hours into this 177 minute marathon of abstraction, violence and insanity. This is a movie that caused a film critic on BBC Radio to comment that “it makes Game of Thrones look like Love Actually.” Believe me, it makes a LOT of things look like Love Actually. Vladimir and Estragon might look like characters from Blackadder.
When Alexei German’s carnival of grotesquerie has finished and its imagery and density are writhing inside the soul of its intended viewer like a malignant parasite, that line may seem more and more like a window into one of the film’s dark insights; perhaps something as essential to civilization as social discourse has an elaborate historical underpinning which happened as a result of fortuity.
After all, this is the story of an alternate history, based on a novel by the Strugatsky brothers (I haven’t read it, please comment below if you have) where a planet is discovered with alarming similarities to our own. Aliens resembling humans have started to build castles and cities there similar to the Early Renaissance, and they can speak Russian! What are the odds? Their development is a great deal behind that of Earth’s (800 years as mentioned in the opening monologue) and we quickly figure out why. The planet is, as Ray from In Bruges might describe it, a shithole. An anti-cultural purge has started and it might be unstoppable. All that Earth’s scientists who have been sent there to observe the inhabitants can do is exactly that: sit and watch, whilst potentially gesturing towards the Enlightenment? We feel their pain and helplessness. One of the scientists might not, though.
Our hero Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), as he is known in the university city of Arkanar where the action takes place, is revered as a god by the population and lives in relative luxury, though that’s not saying much. Amidst the fog, mud, rain, slime, fluids and entrails, we witness the Don’s attempts to engage with the town, ruled over by Don Reba, a prime minister who lauds over a clan war between the fascistic Greys and the fundamentalist Blacks. He is forbidden to kill. No prizes if you can guess if he keeps to this. After all, Moses didn’t.
If this sounds like “the prequel trilogy”, don’t worry. No science fiction film has ever looked less like Star Wars. If it sounds like I’m giving away the plot, don’t panic, you’ll thank me later. It’s like saying the last word in Ulysses is “yes”; technically a spoiler, but it reveals nothing. The rotting hulk of the film is concerned with immersion over exposition, texture over text. Of all the insights and works of genius that the science fiction genre has gifted us, this being no exception, thank god Smell-O-Vision isn’t one of them.
The film’s bewildering tracking shots, paucity of cuts and Wellesian baroque staging (more like Touch of Medieval, geddit?), all compounded with its elliptical narrative and extreme violence, may have casual viewers running to the hills and for their lives. Hell, even seasoned arthouse lovers may shy away, and why shouldn’t they? Any and all responses to this are kind of justified. After all, when there’s such a definite tension between the ambition that it took to make this film and the melancholic torment it ultimately induces, an audience might be inclined to wonder what the point is. Here’s all I can say: in my mind, this is a work of fiction that is about what it means to be a fucking human being, to paraphrase David Foster Wallace’s maxim, and it’s mean work. Given the right conditions, there’s a feral idiot inside all of us and, when progress and civility are blighted, your personal comforts cease and your ethics are for nought. As if the book were distilled to a poison and then used to trigger a fevered, three-hour hallucination, one experiences Hard To Be A God. It’s the only verb that will do.