Aleksey German’s mammoth swan-song film Hard To Be A God screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center for three nights only. Consider catching all three screenings: once to see a great film, the second to conquer it, and a third because you need to. Ticket information can be found here.
Aleksey German’s camera pans as members of the intelligentsia, often referred to as bookworms or wise guys, have been hanged. One after another, executed bodies populate the moving frame through various planes of action until we come across a soldier. He looks as gaunt and pale as any of the suspended bodies in the background. He may not have a noose around his neck, but he’s dead too; he simply doesn’t know it yet. German’s Hard To Be A God is an aggressively unpleasant film about an otherworldly society that never made it past their medieval era. Shot in black and white where among the picture’s many challenges is to make distinctions between blood and shit, the only thing to be sure of is that German is making no concessions toward clarity. Ergo, this is a tough sell. But as German’s world building takes shape, you find yourself enfolding into the stupefying and violent society that composes the film – as a viewer you start as an outsider but, by the film’s end, you become an active participant to its brand of atrocity.
An unseen narrator establishes the principle concepts to hold onto, a sort of compass to direct you through the muddy maw of hell we’re entering: this is not Earth and the Renaissance did not happen. The derelict community, from afar, is almost picturesque, like the snow-covered town of Presbyterian Church in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. But upon closer inspection, this alien terrain, known as Arkanar, is most certainly not on the cusp of enlightenment.
The camera moves, ceaselessly, often entering a fog to transverse from scene to scene. We enter a smoke filled abyss to come out of another one, endlessly moving. A lone figure draws our attention. He’s Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik). We’re informed (again, by an unseen narrator) that he’s a visiting scientist from Earth whose task is to document the anticipated Renaissance. He’s been here in Arkanar for a while and we first see him shit-face drunk (a term of literal consequence) and stumbling around his quarters expelling a diatribe of his plight. He’s not to interfere with the native’s transgressions, simply to observe. He’s bestowed by the townspeople as a deity. He watches as they waste away.
German captures erosion of the heart, spirit, and society. There’s not so much a discernible plot than an observation of a regressive society’s milieu. The film is vast and an achievement of some sort. You’re often questioning how a film like this could be made – the camera moves with such swiftness, demonstrating a perpetually moving axis whereby production, too, must be moving along with the camera. This is a tremendous filmmaking accomplishment that more or less embodies the ideals of world building without its universe ever crashing down on its viewer – which is to say that the intimidating architecture of Hard To Be a God never overwhelms beyond comprehension. It remains within a viewers grasp even as it challenges them.
But, yet again, it’s a tough sell. It can be a sour plunge, one with its difficulties that will require an audience to recalibrate its expectations. The film is part of a tradition of filmmaking, notably the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, that mused on the downtrodden inquires of the soul and humanity. I’ve never seen any of German’s films before Hard To Be A God – he’s largely gone unnoticed by American critics and cinephiles, as his work has often been prohibited to screen outside of his native Russia. This mollification of his voice, of his art – of all voices, of all art – is a vital idea to hold onto when watching Hard To Be A God. It will be your Polaris in the cavernous hallows and denude humanity of German’s wonderful and strange farewell.