sun 27/09/2020

Hard to Be a God | reviews, news & interviews

Hard to Be a God

Hard to Be a God

Striking images, mystifying story make Alexei German's final film a one-of-a-kind

Leonid Yarmolnik as Don Rumata: channelling the craziness of a Werner Herzog world

Don’t on any account be late for the first couple of minutes of the woolly mammoth that is Russian director Alexei German’s last film, Hard to Be a God, since the opening narrative voiceover gives a rare suggestion of explanatory background to a work that, put mildly, does not greatly trouble itself, over a lumbering length of just under three hours, with much in the way of plot explication.

Don’t on any account be late for the first couple of minutes of the woolly mammoth that is Russian director Alexei German’s last film, Hard to Be a God, since the opening narrative voiceover gives a rare suggestion of explanatory background to a work that, put mildly, does not greatly trouble itself, over a lumbering length of just under three hours, with much in the way of plot explication.

That opening snatch gives a gist of the wider context that German and his co-scriptwriter (and now widow) Svetlana Karmalita largely discarded from the eponymous 1964 novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky that is the film’s source (the work of the science-fiction writer-brothers has a rich history in Russian cinema, not least in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker). From contemporary (in the novel, 22nd-century) Earth a team of 30 scientists has been sent to another planet, Arkanar, where existence continues at the level of our Middle Ages, some 800 years earlier. The period of the Renaissance seems to have been aborted, and with it any civilising elements that might have brought progress to a world that is otherwise distinguished by unremitting squalor, violence, and a sense of almost troglodyte existence, conveyed in a landscape of fog, torrential rain and squelching mud, and crude human appearances (the large supporting cast comprises many non-professionals chosen not only for their extreme physical, but also psychological traits, pictured below).

If any film would benefit from a sniff-card to convey the sheer sense of being there, this is it

Hard to Be a God is not a film for which the term “spoiler alert” was invented, making hints towards any interpretation of German’s narrative more than welcome. Its central character, Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), is one of the scientists concerned, though he plays a role loosely resembling that of a knight from a world of quasi-medieval chivalry which is otherwise totally absent here. His differences from the practically aboriginal population – he maintains an impressive degree of personal cleanliness, has the habit of dispensing bright white handkerchiefs, and is a conquering swordsman – mark him out so much that some see him as a god (explaining the film’s title). Abject dirt – shit, snot, mud, decaying corpses, disembowelled innards and the like – surrounds him, drawing visually on the work of North European artists, like the Brueghels (for landscapes) and Hieronymus Bosch (for the brutish physiognomies). If any film would benefit from a sniff-card to convey the sheer sense of being there, this is it.

Society is divided between two warring factions, the Greys and the Blacks – there’s a sickly child prince somewhere in the middle, too – though the distinction between them is more than moot. There are local troops, the Holy Orders, and a community of monks. Rumata’s main opponent is Don Reba (Alexandr Chutko), one of his allies the massive Baron Pampa (Yury Tsurilo, hero of German’s previous film, Khrustalyov, My Car!).  

Yarmolnik’s character – channelling the craziness of this Werner Herzog-like world, it’s a huge leap for an actor otherwise best known for his comic roles, and separate career as a comedian – is forbidden to interfere in the world to which he has been sent as an observer. The most he can do is to attempt to rescue society’s “wise men”, scientists, men of books and the like, among them the mysterious Dr Budakh whose recurring absence/presence in the film is another enigma, and spirit them away to a hidden camp in the marshes, which is also residence to other “earthlings” who have rather hit the bottle. The outcome for those he cannot save is gruesome, and we witness one being drowned in shit in an outdoor latrine.

There must be allegory here, though identifying it is hard: Hard to Be a God seems to be about the impossibility of civilisation evolving under any circumstances, at all. It’s the kind of statement that would have been right at home in Soviet cinema, not least from German himself (whose three Soviet-era films, most notably Mr Friend Ivan Lapshin, will likely remain his richest legacy), but harder to pin down in the current climate, except to say that there are few grounds for optimism, and almost every attempt towards positive action is defeated (the only emotional contacts Rumata has developed are duly extinguished).

As the final, unfinished – the director died in 2013, and the film was finished, largely on the level of its sound work, by his widow Karmalita and their son Alexei German Jr, himself a prominent new Russian director working in the same arthouse style as his father – work of a master, Hard to Be a God comes with a mystique to it that matches the elaborate history predating its premiere at the Rome film festival at the end of 2013. German had set his sight on the source novel on its original publication, but its first perestroika-era adaptation went to German director Peter Fleischmann. However, the Strugatskys proved loyal to German, who resumed his project in the 90s, finally shooting it between 2000 and 2006 (the astounding castle exteriors were filmed in the Czech Republic), before it went into prolonged post-production.  

Was it worth the wait – and is it worth the watch? Unquestionably, and we’re lucky that in Britain it’s getting a cinema release at all. For all its mysteries – the script is cryptic, its few utterances drawing on contemporary, often sweary jargon, interspersed with, among other things, snatches of Hamlet, and a musical score that includes both modern melodies and Yermolnik playing jazz – there’s something completely mesmerising about it, caught not least in the stunning cinematography of Vladimir Ilyin and Yury Klimenko, which transforms our expectations of black-and-white into a remarkable symphony of grey. Its production designers, and costume designer Yekaterina Shapkaitz, achieve something similar, counterpointing occasional visual touches like white roses and doves against the otherwise pervasive muck. It’s dominated by interior scenes, in which the figures of the players overlap in exaggeratedly crowded shots, with a visual interest in still-life as pronounced as anything else.

The final effect is of an antipode to the crisp, austere medievalism of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublyev, and I thought at first that German’s final scenes (pictured above), moving as they do visually into clean, snow-covered landscapes rather more in the style of Tarkovsky, might signal that Rumata was returning to his home planet. Apparently not – though finally, who knows? Does the film’s scale, at 177 minutes, feel overstretched? Sometimes, though it’s hard to see how editing could have greatly clarified the story. Hard to Be a God falls into the take-it-or-leave-it category and, without it, cinema in the widest sense would finally be poorer. I’d even wager that German must have been frustrated to have to prune it down to the length it is. 

Overleaf: watch the trailer for Hard to Be a God

 

 

The final effect is of an antipode to the crisp, austere medievalism of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 'Andrei Rublyev'

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