Cult Cinema: Hard to Be a God

Andrew reviews the final film of Russian director Aleksei German, Hard to Be a God.

Welcome to Hell
The concept of Hell gets tossed around a lot, either in a literal sense or figure of speech.  One's idea of Hell differs from person to person, either in the form of a Hieronymous Bosch painting or old fashioned devil horns, fire and brimstone.  Few realizations of the concept however are able to realistically imbue the notion of misery, filth and choking stench associated with the term.  With the final film of the late Russian master Aleksei German, Hard to Be a God, a human being on this Earth may have finally gazed deep into the pit.  

The second of two adaptations of the novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (authors of Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker), German has fashioned a medieval Hellscape dripping with mud, urine, phlegm, feces and rotting flesh suffocating its characters and every ounce of the frame.  A loose science fiction/period drama hybrid about a scientist from Earth who travels to the planet Arkada which is in the throes of its own Middle Ages, the film is a first person point-of-view three-hour wallow in scatological suffering, shackles and wetlands which bubble and croak with every step made.  With a production lasting over six years followed by an additional four of post-production, Hard to Be a God is as grueling of a watch as it must have been to make.  Even as characters break the fourth wall and address the camera directly when they aren't bumping their shit and sweat covered bodies against it, never once to you feel free of the grip of the film's sensory overload which seeks to bury or drown you in its foul atmosphere.

German's final film took a really very long time to make, almost too long.  Production began in the year 2000 and principal photography wrapped around 2006 followed by four more years of editing and sound mixing before the director's untimely death left his widow and son an unfinished work to contend with.  During this period, German was in poor health and frequently hospitalized, further delaying his endless magnum opus from completion.  Anytime an artist's extinguished torch is reignited and carried on by friends and family, there's an unspoken question about the validity of the final product.  In other words, just how close to the director's vision is the finished film considering he wasn't alive to see it through to the end?  Going into German's film knowing full well his widow and son brought closure to the piece, I couldn't help but fear another Battle Royale II with it's overt shifts between master filmmaker Kinji Fukusaku's skills and his son's ineptitude.  In the case of Hard to Be a God however, as you watch it play out in motion, so much is happening onscreen at once with such acute attention to detail including the costumes, sets and in particular the sound design, it's absolutely overwhelming.

Clearly and undeniably the work of a genius with a perfectionism rivaling the tyranny of Stanley Kubrick, Hard to Be a God exhibits a real sense of claustrophobia sustained for all three hours of the film's running time, the only exit being when it mercifully ends.  There's more fog and smoke in this thing than Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.  Early reviews drew comparisons between this and Mad Max: Fury Road for its dirty and dusty world gone awry.  However, where George Miller's masterpiece (yes, it is one) provided excitement and thrills, Hard to Be a God crawls miserably on its hands and knees through slime so thick it feels dangerous.  You the spectator are rendered a sponge dropped in the middle of German's pit, soaking up every ounce of exquisitely rendered ugliness until it begins to seep through your skin and into your bones.  By design, the film primarily relies on an elite combination of two cinematographers, producing ornate Steadicam cinematography, hand-held photography, wide-angle lenses ala Aguirre, the Wrath of God and an intentional lack of music, leaving no safety nets or diversions to your lone interpretation.

That had better not be feces
I just stepped in....oh is.
In hindsight this is the most berserk, neurotic, brutally violent and uncompromising Russian medieval epic since Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev with some of the most complicated sequences of sensory assault since Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.  Hard and heavy as a boulder, it's a galvanizing experience and an ode to a forgotten Russian cinematic art form.  As previously mentioned, there was another adaptation made in 1989 by director Peter Fleischmann featuring Werner Herzog in the cast.  While the idea of multiple remakes and adaptations typically weight against a film's standalone solidarity, Aleksei German's rendition is not only closer to the source (the Strugatskys dismissed Fleischmann's adaptation in favor of German's) but in terms of artistic prowess there's really no comparison.  The brief clips I've seen of the 1989 effort felt like a cornball Army of Darkness, shot in color with none of the grotesquerie awash in German's take.  All things fair, German's Hard to Be a God is not easy viewing or digestion nor should it be, determined to disgust and repel throughout.  There are images contained therein and an overall tonality that can't be easily shaken once internalized for yourself.  It is a painful, raw and completely unpleasant experience constructed by an artist whose final bow does not mitigate the weight of the anvil dropped on viewers daring enough to take the swan dive into sewage.  As an artist, German was never interested in commerce, primarily following the beat of his own drum in the pursuit of creative expression.  If that's not indicative of the fire burning within one of Russia's most important cinematic visionaries, nothing else is.


-Andrew Kotwicki

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