Blu-ray review: Hard to Be a God

Starring: Vasili Domrachyov, Ramis Ibragimov
Director: Aleksei German

hard-to-be-a-god 1Aleksei German’s final film, 13 years in the completion, is adapted from a novel by Arkady and Boris Strugasky, who also penned the source material for Tarkovsky’s Stalker. But it’s another Tarkovsky film, Andrei Rublev, which looms over Hard to Be a God. An eccentric biopic of a celebrated icon painter, Andrei Rublev presented a memorably cold, miserable portrait of Russia in the Middle Ages, and it’s as if German was determined to beat Tarkovsky at his own game.

The film begins with a rash of exposition. The setting is a planet much like Earth but 800 years behind it in development. A group of Earth scientists have been sent to the planet to observe its progress, posing as noblemen and dukes. And that’s about it for plot, really. If there is anything more complex going on in terms of storyline or character arcs, it’s buried under a welter of Gothic set dressing as German brings this wet, muddy hell-hole of a planet to disorientating life.

The approach is impressionistic, fragmented. We follow around one of the scientists, who goes by the name of Rubata, but aside from introducing the alto sax to the Dark Ages, he seems content to slum it, stumbling from one inconclusive, absurdist encounter to another like an indifferent Dante travelling through some particularly rowdy circles of Hades.

This is the Middle Ages with touches of Mad Max and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, by way of Hieronymus Bosch, a place dowsed in freezing fogs and a perpetual cold drizzle, where ceilings are low and festooned with nasty instruments of torture, and where you can’t go far without seeing a dead dog, pustulent backside or pile of human ordure. Because of this dark, repelling vision, Hard to Be a God has won a formidable reputation as being a very unwholesome piece of work indeed, the ultimate feelbad movie.

Yet apart from an obsession with snot and faeces, one graphic disembowelment and a scene of children playing among dismembered bodies, nothing that terrible really happens. What makes the film so provocative is German’s unconventional directorial style and the confrontational way in which he sets up scenes, with pointy things and flapping pigeons lunging suddenly into the foreground and extras lurching up to leer or scowl at the camera. This breaking of – or at the very least repeated assaults upon– the fourth wall make Hard to Be a God particularly uncomfortable to watch – it’s as if the viewer is constantly having their own personal space invaded by this stinky, menacing rabble.

However, it’s also German’s Achilles heel. Because once you get used to them, you realize that his bag of tricks is actually quite limited. After a while, you start to anticipate the next squirt of snot or flurry of  flying feathers, and at that point the whole enterprise starts to feel like a rather desperate exercise in self-parody.

Yet even if the film seems like a flawed achievement and a sadly nihilistic last hard-to-be-a-god 2testament, it’s still striking for the brilliance of its finely etched black-and-white camerawork, its nightmarishly imaginative and painstaking set design, its extraordinary imagery (hanged bodies covered in fish-scales to attract the birds that will peck them to tatters), and for German’s ability to create a bizarre world of his own on set which his large, unwieldy cast seem totally invested in down to the smallest walk-on part. A must-see for lovers of the outré, and at the very least no one who watches this film will ever take a dump again without thinking of Aleksei German. 6/10

EXTRAS
A bunch of extras that are very helpful in providing some background to a film that can seem extremely impenetrable. ~ 15 min Intro by Svetlana Karmalita – the director’s widow talks about, among other things, his editing techniques and fondness for shooting in black-and-white. 10-min interview with the director’s son, Aleksei German Jr – he comments on his father’s use of long takes for a sense of realism and speaks of the film, rather worryingly, as a “vision of the future”. ~ A sprightly 34-min video essay by Michael Brooke which furnishes a useful potted biography of the director and some clips of his other work and also discusses the reasons for his obscurity outside Russia. ~ 28-min talking head piece with critic Daniel Bird, who reveals that the film has a plot and explains what it is, and also gives some context to the movie in terms of other works of Russian cinema and science fiction. 8/10

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