Home Video Hovel: Hard to Be a God, by Scott Nye
French poet Paul Valery said, “A poem is never finished; only abandoned.” The statement has often been applied to films. This is especially true of Aleksei German’s final and posthumously released film, the legend for which is nearly as compelling as the thing itself. German had been contemplating an adaptation of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s novel nearly since the time of its release in 1964. Another adaptation was produced in 1989, directed by Peter Fleischmann (and written by Jean-Claude Carriere!), but the Strugatskys criticized it, encouraging German to pursue his own version. After the ecstatic reception of his Khrustalyov, My Car! in 1998 (Martin Scorsese, Cannes jury president that year, is alleged to have said, “This film is so extraordinary even I don’t understand it!”), German began just that. Production on the film began in 2000, and finally wrapped in…2006.
Rumors persisted since then. In his piece on the film for Cinema Scope, Olaf Möller suggests that German may have tinkered with the film for so long with the intention that it remain essentially incomplete within his lifetime. Indeed, upon the filmmaker’s death in February of 2013 (Arkady and Boris, for their part, died in 1991 and 2012, respectively), his wife and son quickly announced that Hard to be a God was indeed near completion, and they had only to finalize a few technical details to make it presentable. The film premiered that fall at the Rome Film Festival.
The extent to which this extra-textual preamble is required to understand the finished work is of course up for debate, but it may go a long way towards explaining the relative import of this dense, odd, sometimes laughably incomprehensible three-hour Russian film about shit-slinging and rot of all sort. The premise, laid out clearly at the start of the picture, has a sort of logline appeal before becoming a cruel joke – on Earth, a future civilization discovers another planet that quite closely resembles its own, only several centuries behind; curious if they can learn anything from essentially seeing into their past, a team of scientists journeys there to gather data and, hopefully, witness the coming cultural and intellectual renaissance firsthand…except that upheaval never comes. Instead, this culture repeatedly tortures and murders any individual who shows a sign of curiosity beyond sex, violence, and pranks. Our protagonist, Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) has thus far escaped such fate, only because the land’s residents assume him to be a god, leaving him to watch helplessly as these…people…churn hopelessly around in a cycle of nonsense and completely fail to develop.
So, why is a film with virtually no narrative momentum, little in the way of character arc, and, frankly, only the slightest nods to the context of any of the action therein, considered among the best of the year? You could say it has something to do with anticipation. Even the highbrow crowd has the tendency to look only for the best in the every work by their favorite filmmakers. But really, once you’ve seen Khrustalyov, expectations of any sort of narrative normalcy go out the window. What sustains Hard to be a God is the same force that sustained that earlier film – choreography. German has an unparalleled talent in filling his frame, balancing the individual set-ups within vast camera movements. It’s all just a little bit unreal, a little bit cartoony, a little bit nightmarish, and often grotesquely beautiful. Only in black and white could this amount of shit, mud, piss, vomit, snot – and an array of other material we feel fortunate to leave unidentified – remain stomachable, let alone this compelling. I’ve never quite seen a cinematic world like that of Hard to Be a God, which German gives himself free reign to wander about. There seems to be a surprise around every corner; scores of hanged men, a fly-infested well-turned-prison, even a tank at one point. One shot begins on a bridge, looking straight ahead, as we hear a droning men’s chorus on the soundtrack. We suspect a similar sort of drudgery-as-epic-quest that drives some of Herzog’s Aguirre, only for the camera to turn and reveal dozens of monks actually singing. Someone throws a bag of filth at them, and they scatter.
Is there any logic to be be drawn from this madness? Don Rumata asks himself the same thing. Can an enlightened man such as himself maintain that perspective after years in this muck? If he could grant himself license to incite their progress, how would he even do such a thing? German has no answers, nor should he. His attitude is not one of superiority. He does not align himself with Rumata – himself a depraved, distracted, violent man – nor his audience with the inhabitants, or vice-versa. We are all a little bit depraved, a little bit enlightened, and that war to rise above is as personal as it is societal. I’ve seen the film twice now within a few months, and I’m far from totally comprehending it. But its pull is hypnotic; when I received the Blu-ray, I intended only to revisit a third or so to reacquaint myself with it and check the technical qualities, but I could not stop watching. Every shot is too surprising, intriguing, and often just damn funny. German retains the humor of a schoolboy with the audacity of an old artist with little to lose.
Kino has done a remarkable job bringing the film to Blu-ray, every nook and cranny of this twisted world brought to the proper clarity that German intended. The quality of the black-and-white image is outstanding, the subtle variations of gray and white (there’s very little outright black in it) giving the film a very luminous feel. They also provide two indispensable supplements – a 44-minute making-of piece featuring extensive interviews with German, and an introduction by co-writer (and German’s widow) Svetlana Karmalita – along with a booklet with essays by Alexey German, Jr. and Aliza Ma, as well as a director’s statement. Hard to Be a God is among the best of the year, and easily its most valuable.