Hard To Be A God

I hate to be
judgemental but I
hated this film.

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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: ‘jawdropping’
comes
to mind. Peter
Bradshaw in The
Guardian gave it
five stars, made it
his film of the
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week, and
awarded epithets
such as ‘aweinspiring’
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
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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 middleages,
a
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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 rainsoaked
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 perse
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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
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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
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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,
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something which
is unfamiliar or
unknown?
Roadside Picnic
postulated the
impact on our
society of the
casual discovery
of alien artefacts,
explained
throu
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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 runoff
water from
surrounding
fields.
Tarkovsky and
German shared a
mutual respect,
although
German’s hyperrealism
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 postrevolutionary
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.
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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
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(1970).
German’s filming
of Hard To Be A
God took six
years, from 2000
to 2006, the
lengthy editing
and postproduction
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
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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
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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 nonintervention
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;
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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 JeanClaude
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.