Two years ago the world lost a major veteran filmmaker in Aleksei German, but outside Russia (perhaps even there) and the rarefied world of film festivalgoers, you might be forgiven having no idea who he was. When he died at age 74, German (pronounced with a hard “g,” like Gorky) had been working in movies for well over a half-century. Yet he only made six features, none of them given significant exposure in the West, and several banned for years on end by disgruntled Soviet censors. In his last thirty years he completed just two films, a third magnum opus—which we’ll get to shortly—being released only after a tortuously long production history and his own demise.
Those two movies, however, 1984’s My Friend Ivan Lapshin and 1998’s Khrustalyov, My Car!, were remarkable. His prior work had been respectable (if politically controversial), albeit conventional compared to this duo, each of which was initially greeted with a certain shock and bafflement before being proclaimed among the best Russian movies ever made. Shrugging off the influence of his idol Tarkovsky, German found an original style that echoed elements of Soviet cinema as far back as Eisenstein, yet whose
teeming-with-life freneticism—intricately choreographed between actors and camera, yet playing like a form of almost pure chaos—was all his own. These features, presenting very different takes on the Stalinist era, are as ornately plotless as the Fellini of Amarcord or Satyricon, replacing that Italian phantasmagorian’s decadent grotesquerie with an equally striking but more rueful, distinctively Russian sense of disorder and illogic within pervasive oppression.
Even before he made his first feature in 1967 (The Seventh Companion, disharmoniously co-directed with the more experienced Grigori Aronov), German had hoped to adapt the brothers Akrady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1964 novel Hard to be a God. It carried their usual science-fiction themes into an unusual realm: Its hero is a modern Soviet scientist dispatched to a parallel planet that’s like Earth, except about 800 years behind the times. There, he’s tasked with observing—but never interfering with—a feudal society in which poverty, misery and superstition rule. In his guise as a wealthy nobleman (considered a “god” by some because of his extraordinary combat and other skills), he’s a dismayed witness to nonstop senseless violence amongst and between political, religious and criminal factions. There’s scant hope of enlightenment brightening these Dark Ages: Literacy itself is punishable by death here. Exposure to such deliberant, ignorant brutality is slowly driving our protagonist “Don Rumata” (his real name Anton) mad.
In 1989, a USSR/West German film was made of Hard to be a God . But the Strugatskys (whose stories have also been adapted for the screen by Tarkovsky, Sokurov and Feodor Bondarchuk) clashed with German director Peter Fleischmann, disavowing the final result. They’d wanted a Russian director in the first place—preferably German.
It would take years for that dream to come true, in part because the subsequent collapse of the Soviet empire and its state-funded film industry made it even more difficult for such a maverick talent to get funding, let alone for such an epic project. Nor did the famously idiosyncratic, perfectionist director (who professed to disliking modern cinema in general) make things easier once shooting finally commenced in 2000. Various problems dragged production on (and off) for an impossible six years. Post-production lasted another five, requiring German’s scenarist wife Svetlana Karmalita and his son Aleksey German Jr. (himself an acclaimed director) to finally complete the product after its guiding light succumbed to heart failure.
At last premiering at the Rome Film Festival in late 2013, Hard to be a God proved as imposing, confounding and unique as one might expect—a magnum opus indeed. Yet despite the anticipation its near-legendary production delays had raised, and its sweeping the annual Russian “Nika” awards, this major work has been very spottily released. While scattered US locations from NYC to Grand Rapids, MI have enjoyed it during limited theatrical runs, Hard to be a God inexplicably bypassed the Bay Area entirely, not even getting a local film festival date.
Ergo, Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray and DVD release on June 30 will represent the first chance most of us have had to see an epic literally decades in the making. How to describe this Hard to be a God ?
It is overwhelming, challenging, gorgeous and repugnant: A dive into a medieval hellhole more graphically filthy than even Bergman’s The Seventh Seal or Ken Russell’s The Devils, a quasi-historical dystopia in which bodily fluids are forever unhygienically dropped, flung or spat. Life as depicted is pitilessly brutal, with the edge of sardonic, absurdist humor such hopelessness often brings. The world seems made of mud, the very air of fog and smoke—this isn’t a black and white movie so much as one in infinite shades of near-impenetrable gray.
Despite the remarkably detailed, Rube Goldbergian-mudpit production design (the fanciful musical instruments on display alone are fascinating—when was the last time you marveled at a movie’s props ?), German doesn’t aim for spectacle. Instead, he mostly eschews long- or even medium-shots for claustrophobic frames crowded with human (and livestock) detritus, the camera reeling through a nonstop sideshow of gawping faces largely cast amongst nonprofessionals. (What’s more, these figures often address or stare blankly at the camera itself.) Such long unbroken set pieces manage to feel reckless and random despite their no doubt requiring hours of intricate rehearsal choreography. Its splattery progress marked not only by muck and blood but hangings, vomit, carcasses and Three Stooges-like slapstick cruelty, German’s Hard to be a God is the very definition of beautiful ugliness. The cinematography (by Vladimir Ilin and Yuri Klimenko) is always stunning to look at, even when what’s depicted onscreen threatens to turn the stomachs of more squeamish viewers.
What Hard to be a God doesn’t have, predictably, is much narrative coherency. While the fairly short novel (which you would be wise to read before seeing the film) prizes incident over story arc or overt “meaning” as well, German can’t be bothered with those qualities at all. Voiceover narration provides some overall context, but without it we wouldn’t even know Don Rumata (handsome Leonid Yarmonik, a god indeed amongst the unwashed) is a visitor from another planet—or that there’s a sci-fi aspect to this allegory at all. In the book, our hero nostalgically recalls his peaceful days on Earth, and his comrades occasionally swoop in via helicopter to rescue him or other “observers” in trouble.
Brief glimpses of those contrasting elements (perhaps in color, with some clean, “futuristic” landscape compositions) might have alleviated the relentless onslaught of German’s vision. Yet you can’t help admiring the stubborn purism with which he commits himself (and us) to it. In sharp contrast to the formulaic, CGI-riddled sci-fi fantasies that dominate multiplexes these days, Hard to be a God is something organic and unwieldy. Like a towering ant-farm pile, it seems to defy all structural logic, and can hardly be looked away from—though you might be reluctant to stick your naked hand into its messy, teeming life.
HARD TO BE A GOD
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Dennis Harvey has been publishing film reviews since the era of the typewriter. He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and currently writes for Variety and Fandor’s Keyframe.