Cast: Leonid Yarmolnik, Yuri Tsurillo, Natalia Moteva, Aleksandr Chutko
Director: Aleksei German
Running Time: 2 hours 50 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Like a grotesque mutilation of proper civilization, the late Aleksei German's final film is a disorienting descent into madness that makes absolutely no concessions to appeasing audience's appetite for coherent storytelling. Speaking of appetite, this is one best left off the breakfast menu; with streams of flying snot, shit-caked faces, pestilence-streaked landscapes, and bare ass slapping being some of the least revolting visuals in German's nearly three-hour opus. Over the course of several decades, the Russian filmmaker meticulously labored over his adaptation of the Strugatsky brothers' 1964 sci-fi novel; writers who also penned Roadside Picnic, which was later adapted by Andrei Tarkovsky for 1979's Stalker. Truthfully, Hard To Be A God is less indebted to Tarkovsky than purveyors of gonzo cinema like Terry Gilliam and Werner Herzog, only filtered through what could be read as a damning critique of modern-day Russian society.
Of course, any probing commentary is tangential at best, and it's clear from the opening moments that German is working on an instinctual level rather than a narrative-driven or thematic one, resulting in something approaching a primal kind of purity. The story (if one can call it that) follows a roving citizen of Earth named Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) sent to a distant planet called Arkanar in order to observe the state of it's collapsing society. Taking on the role of an ancient god (even though he's clearly just a drunken mortal), Don Rumata stumbles through a series of phantasmagoric vignettes represented by long fluid tracking shots where German's camera follows his protagonist as if the camera itself is a shit-faced beggar attempting to touch the hem of the messiah's garments. Shot in stark black-and-white while employing mostly hand-held camerawork and wide angle lenses, Hard To Be A God is a visual tour de force; albeit one which unabashedly rubs your face in the pitiless muck of an existence predicated on utter depravity. Calling it "the body fluid film of the year" would actually be an understatement, as the amount of flowing liquids emanating from nearly every nook and cranny of the human body is on full display throughout. Never once does German stop his picture and offer an explanation. Never once does he have his characters apologize for their behavior. This is the sight of a world that has long ago forsook any need for salvation, much less a warm bath.
As a synthesis of human misery and barbarism, Hard To Be A God is a triumph of sound and imagery. Part of the trick of watching German's rather extraordinary tone poem of epic perversion is keying in on how many bizarre images he crams into every frame. This is a film alive and teeming; with heightened sound design (the clanking of metal and a near constant rattle of torrential downpour gives everything a claustrophobic atmosphere) aligning with the often carnivalesque faces of a cast mostly covered in filth. Peasants cackle, dangle meat, and spit out rotten food. Soldiers swing blades, massacre holy fools, and hang intellectuals from the gallows like decorative ornaments. Extras come in and out of the frame, often looking directly at the camera with a variety of humorous expressions. To some degree, the film is an unrelenting comedy of regressive primitivism glancing cock-eyed at any notions of enlightenment. There is no appreciation of art, literature, or anything approaching the finer things in life. Religion is mentioned in throwaway bits of dialogue, but never investigated beyond mere formality. Everything that occurs here feels both arbitrary and essential. This is part of what makes Hard To Be A God a great film; it challenges, provokes, upsets, bores, and makes all standard movie-watching coping mechanisms utterly irrelevant. It's a thing to be experienced, and one that many brave souls will abandon long before it's daunting running time reaches even the second hour.
As Rumata limps around fog-drenched corridors, dilapidated arches, and piles of mutilated bodies, the audience too becomes ensnared inside the flurry of visceral chaos. There are betrayals, plots against supposed godhood, and trivial backstabbing, but the never-ending torrent of nonsensical post-dubbed dialogue drowns whatever threads of coherency may lie under the surface. German's goal seems to be to create a timeless piece of art that strangles the past, present, and future into one ungainly stew of gangrene-infested mise-en-scène, and boy, does he pull it off. Love live the stench of dying civilization!