Trudno byt bogom
Aleksei German, 2013, Russia
‘Hard to be a God’ falls somewhere between Tarkovsky and ‘Zardoz’. By which I mean it contains leanings towards brilliance, campness, pretentiousness, indulgence, uniqueness, something genuinely bonkers. The comparison with Tarkovesky isn’t a stretch at all since since ‘Stalker’ was based on the book ‘Roadside Picnic’ by the same authors, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky: ‘Hard to be a God’ is based upon their 1964 novel. And ‘Stalker’ provides a good example of the science fiction of ‘Hard to be a God’ which is free of any visual clues that might obvious symbolise an otherworldly setting. There are no futuristic vistas, for example, no alien designs; just people saying and acting bizarre things(although you may note that the costume Don Rumata wears looks like the remains of a spacesuit). It was directed by Alexei German and completed by his son Alexei German Jnr upon his father’s death in 2013.
It’s a medieval science-fiction scenario, which you can’t say about too many films, in which a group of astronauts have landed on a planet that seems trapped in its Dark Ages, bent on killing anyone they deem intellectual. This is why people act like “The Fool” from a play, with added killing. These astronauts aren’t meant to interfere with the development of this society but, of course, they do and have. One, calling himself Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), is already bearing a “Godlike” status simply because he is more focused and alert in a land of violent idiots. This therefore makes him more successful in his violent outbursts even as he loses himself to the cacophony of squalor and craziness all around him as he tries to blend in. The fact that he has apparently gone so successfully native is another reason it may be hard to distinguish the sci-fi basis as he behaves much like those around him.
Disgust is one of its main attributes: every scene wallows in mud and liquids, people smearing themselves with gunk; a face can’t get a close-up without someone else touching it, or someone else picking its nose; it’s a wonder any skin appears clean in some way at all. And this is before the gore kicks in. Long takes nod towards not only to Tarkovsky but also Bela Tarr and Alexandr Sokoruv, but there is none of the stillness of Tsai Ming Liang. Each scene is bursting with people, filth and the surreal, through which the camera glides following a plot that almost comes to the surface. There is a war nbetween The Blacks and The Greys and Don Ramata is looking for someone… Much dialogue bears non sequiturs and it quite likely that even as you are being dazzled by the madness onscreen you will moments where you will be thinking “What?”, “Why?”, “Who?”, “Really?” and “W.T.F.?”. It makes little concession to easy plotting, even if the story is simple when spelt out. But dazzling it is. The cast propel themselves into the muck with vigour in the manner of over-eager amateurs who think such wallowing is vibrant acting (and similarly, you can also say this of Di Caprio in ‘The Revenant’): but I don’t want to claim the acting is amateurish because that isn’t so. Merely that the gusto creates some of the aforementioned campness and indulgence, but it knows what it’s doing. Think then of the dense production design and affectations of Peter Greenaway mixed with the black-and-white austerity of ‘Embrace of the Serpent’.
But that is the meat of this, for the story takes secondary importance to the catalogue of grime and cruelty. It is a treatise on man’s penchant for stupidity and barbarism, even as it indulges in a feudal social structure. IMDB quotes a synopsis by Svetlana Karmalita for the Rome Film Festival that says,
This is not a film about cruelty, but about love. A love that was there, tangible, alive, and that resisted through the hardest of conditions.
But it is about cruelty, surely, as to deny this is to ignore a central ingredient; and it is not so much about ‘love conquering in the worst of times’ as showing a context where affection doesn’t stand a chance. It is about bringing to life a crazed crowded scenario that you might find in classic, renowned paintings. It is about failure; it is about how religion and blind faith can facilitate malice and obstruct progress. It is about the failure of colonisation and where the native culture is too overbearing to be changed by one man, no matter a self-proclaimed God.