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November 2015

Hard To Be A God

cast: Leonid Yarmolnik, Aleksandr Chutko, Yuri Tsurilo, and Laura Pitskhelauri

director: Aleksei German

170 minutes (15) 2013
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Arrow Academy blu-ray region B

RATING: 3/10
review by J.C. Hartley

Hard To Be A God

I hate to be judgemental but I hated this film. After about an hour, I was thinking 'this is the worst film I have ever seen.' Not worst as in Mrs Henderson Presents (2005), or that other one my late Mum asked me to take her to, or Matthew Vaughan's Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014), but just really bad when I had such high hopes.

It seems appropriate to note here that many commentators consider this to be some kind of masterpiece. The trailer, included as part of the extras package, includes a selection of quotations ripe with fulsome praise: 'jaw-dropping' comes to mind. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian gave it five stars, made it his film of the week, and awarded epithets such as 'awe-inspiring' and "beautiful, brilliant and bizarre." When I watched it I thought, 'this has all the shit from Jabberwocky and none of the jokes.' Shit is the least of it. There's shit, piss, snot, blood, puke, and entrails. If we needed confirmation of the noisome nature of the medieval world of Hard To Be A God (aka: Trudno byt bogom), the cast are perpetually smelling things - food, mud, faeces, clothes, each other, and then announcing them to be 'stinky'.

After about two hours I was pleading for the film to 'just end', beyond that I passed into the sort of quiescent state Daniel Craig's James Bond achieves in Casino Royale (2006), after having his testicles lashed to a pulp. I had finally become immersed in what we are told was director Aleksei German's ambition, to provide an immersive experience. Then I watched the extras.

I have a problem visiting art galleries. I consider myself to be visually literate, I can respond to pictures and images on their own terms, but I come from a print culture; I have to read the label. Some images I can enjoy for their own sake, I responded immediately the first time I saw works by Dali, Miro, Magritte, Max Ernst, and Kazimir Malevich; other times I have had to read the label. That always bothered me; shouldn't an image, as art, work on its own terms? If you have to read the label, to have that 'ah, now I see' moment, hasn't the art and the artist failed? I didn't anticipate an epiphanic revelation watching the extras package to Hard To Be A God, and I'm pleased to say I didn't have one, but I did feel I had a better understanding of what German was attempting to achieve, even if I remained sceptical about the merit of the enterprise or its realisation.

The kingdom of Arkaner exists on a planet not unlike Earth, but while Earth society has advanced, Arkaner is stuck in the middle-ages, a renaissance has been stalled, and an oppressive regime is interring and slaughtering intellectuals or 'smartarses'. The medieval society depicted is not contained within a Hollywood image of 'Merrie England', bosky parkland interrupted by thriving market towns and dominated by noble castles, it exists in a rain-soaked mire where the grotesque inhabitants wade through shit, inflicting various degrees of violence upon each other. A couple of dozen Earth scientists are in situ, observing the lack of progress and reporting back to their home planet, an early image viewed through a circular lens suggests that what we see is being filmed, and presumably broadcast back to Earth. Embedded within this society, and posing as a local feudal baron, is Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), an Earthman who has gone native.

Unassailable, due to his fighting skills and his adopted status as the descendent of a god, he attempts to assuage some of the persecution and brutality within Arkaner by protecting scholars and offering them sanctuary. A brief narrated exposition, which director German was reluctant to include, sets the scene, but, it has to be stressed, nothing which occurs on screen is clear or obvious, relationships are obscure and narrative progression excursive to say the least.

Hard To Be A God is based on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's 1964 novel, set in their 'Noon Universe', a utopian society which imagines the victory of communism on Earth and the elimination of most social evils through technology and moral evolution. Less-enlightened worlds are 'progressed' through gentle intervention, although such intervention is seen as highly controversial. Iain M. Banks' 'Culture' novels seem an obvious successor. The Strugatskys, along with the Polish author Stanislaw Lem, are probably the best known of Soviet bloc science fiction writers, thanks to their championing in the west by the likes of Theodore Sturgeon, influential film versions of their famous works, and the sheer quality of their output.

Soviet science fiction has always had a certain cachet, perhaps derived from the reasonable assumption in the west that it was a literature of resistance, smuggling libertarian ideals and oppositional politics, under the guise of fantasy, within a society marked by oppression and curtailments on free speech. Russian literature has a history of influence in the west, the 'Golden Age' in the 19th century saw the likes of Turgenev, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, and others, having a profound effect on nascent literary modernism in England and Europe (although the exiled Ezra Pound apparently admitted to Hemingway in Paris that he had never read the 'Rooshians').

Russian literature seems to fully embrace the speculation and fantasy that typifies romance writing, "fiction that owes no allegiance to The God of Things as They Are" as Ambrose Bierce defined it in his Devil's Dictionary in 1911. The whole Russian experience seems to have entranced the European intelligentsia, an image of Russia and the Russian people as somehow in tune with a spiritual mystical world denied to the materialistic west. Of course one can be overly romantic, "if you are going to tell me that any aspect of Russia psychological, mystical, practical, or commercial seen through an English medium is either Russia as she really is or Russia as Russians see her, I say to you, without hesitation, that you don't know of what you are talking", as Hugh Walpole put it in his novel The Secret City (1919).

The Strugatsky brothers' Roadside Picnic is my favourite SF novel. It appealed to me because it seemed to deal with the concept of the 'alien' in a new way. An awful lot of science fiction takes the 'man in a reptile suit' approach to presenting alien life, that's understandable, how do you imagine, let alone describe, something which is unfamiliar or unknown? Roadside Picnic postulated the impact on our society of the casual discovery of alien artefacts, explained through an imagined scenario in which picnickers leave behind detritus which transforms the environment of the lower life-forms occupying the picnic-site. The book was filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky as Stalker (1979), named for the guides who take scientists and trophy-hunters through the contaminated alien 'Zone'.

Tarkovsky abandoned the book's passages of action and conflict for a meditative and philosophical approach. With its brooding two-fisted hero, it has always seemed to me and others (hello Kim Newman), that Roadside Picnic could be remade as a Hollywood actioner, the sort of thing that would have suited a Bruce Willis before he got lazy and greedy. Tarkovsky also filmed Lem's Solaris (1972), a film closer in tone to the mood of the source material. Both of Tarkovsky's films contain passages of outstanding beauty, a particular scene in Stalker used to pop into my head like an oneiric flashback whenever I jogged up a lane which regularly flooded with run-off water from surrounding fields.

Tarkovsky and German shared a mutual respect, although German's hyper-realism seems a world away from Tarkovsky's romanticism. German's early films, pre-Hard To Be A God, were set in the Stalinist era. An earlier attempt to film Hard To Be A God was stalled, as it coincided with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. In fact, the depiction of a society in which a hoped for renaissance has been replaced by state terror, and the internment of intellectuals, seems pertinent to the early decades of post-revolutionary Russia. Tarkovsky's Mirror (1975) also deals with incidents of Stalinist terror but in an elliptical way. While Tarkovsky was clearly an influence on German, the latter's debt to Fellini is clear in his busy mise en scene.

In the first film in the extras package, German's wife and collaborator Svetlana Karmalita explains something of his technique. She concedes that it is hard to follow which characters are talking in Hard To Be A God, a deliberate policy derived from an edit on Trial On The Road (1971), in which the camera focuses on the non-speaker in order for the viewer to gauge his reaction to off-screen dialogue. In fact this technique, in which the speaker is obscured, and the mise en scene is fouled by obstructions, hands, weapons, serving-vessels, and flowers, and we struggle to attach the random names we hear to particular characters, has an alienating effect which evokes Brecht, except that German's avowed intent is to immerse the viewer in the hyperrealism of the world of Arkaner, not to emphasise the theatrical unreality of the staging. Bizarrely, I was reminded at times of John Boorman's attempt at a late British nouvelle vague, in his film Leo The Last (1970).

German's filming of Hard To Be A God took six years, from 2000 to 2006, the lengthy editing and post-production outlasted the director, and the film was completed by his widow Carmelita, and their son Aleksei German Jr, a noted director in his own right. The extras package includes an interview with German Jr about his father's work, and Hard To Be A God in particular. Michael Brooke reviews German's career in The Unknown Genius as part of the extras package on the blu-ray.

In The History Of The Arkaner Massacre, again among the extras, Daniel Bird provides an explanation of the film which, it has to be said, owes more to a familiarity with the source material than anything which could be derived from a viewing of the film itself. Bird also provides an introduction to science fiction for SF virgins, in which he distinguishes between 'hard', physics-based science fiction, a term he doesn't actually use, and sociological or psychological 'soft' science fiction. Bizarrely, he cites Carl Sagan as an exemplar of a hard science fiction writer. Bird sees German's film as fulfilling Bakhtin's notion of 'carnival' whereby the established order is overturned; in fact I think Bird misinterprets Bakhtin in relation to Hard To Be A God, there is little in the way of satire or anarchy, although there is a Rabelaisian emphasis on scatology. The irony within the Strugatskys novel is that the avatars of the communistic state of the Noon Universe must become members of a bourgeois hierarchy to function in the primitive worlds they investigate.

Driven to distraction by the cruelty he witnesses Don Rumata eventually interferes in the world of Arkaner. He quotes Boris Pasternak's poem Hamlet, and Hamlet is clearly a reference point. The Prince of Denmark, informed by the ghost of his dead father that his uncle is guilty of his murder, is set on a process of revenge, but he hesitates. The hesitation in Shakespeare's Hamlet provides the drama. In Hard To Be A God, Don Rumata hesitates, hamstrung by the non-interference policy of his Earth culture.

Unfortunately there is little or no drama, the only signifier of tension is in the verbalisation of the dilemma; the quandary of non-intervention in the face of atrocity and injustice has been better portrayed in episodes of Star Trek dealing with the Federation's Prime Directive. In Hard To Be A God, a force known as the Greys commit atrocities until they are replaced by an invading force known as the Blacks, who are equally cruel. Rumata explains that any intervention he makes will, by removing one generation of tyrants, simply clear the way for another set of despots. Ultimately, Rumata does act, although we are denied witnessing the massacre of Arkaner we see its aftermath.

Overlong and ultimately pretentious; I'm reluctant to fall into a trap of hating what I don't understand; my late Mother, confronted by something on television that disturbed her, would respond by condemning these 'so-called intellectuals'. I'm not averse to witnessing the messy underbelly of life, and I'm all for challenges to traditional narrative, but this film left me cold. An earlier version from 1989 is described as a poor man's Dune, although the screenplay was by the great Jean-Claude Carriere; I'd quite like to see it. Although I bridled having to sit through the extras, I found them informative, and German's 1998 film Khrustalyov, My Car! sounds like something I'd like to see; so not a complete waste of time.



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