Last month, the Etrange Festival presented Aleksei German’s sixth and last film, Hard to Be a God, an artistic testament on several accounts. It took the director nearly 15 years to complete: after releasing Khrustalyov, My Car in 1998, German spent seven years shooting in the Czech Republic, with additional interior scenes shot in Moscow, followed by six years of editing. He literally put his life into the film, as he died in February 2013 during the last stage of the editing, which was then completed by his son Aleksei Junior. But Hard to Be a God is more than just his final film: German had been thinking about adapting Arkadiy and Boris Strugatskiy’s successful novel virtually from the moment it was published in 1964, coming up with a first script as early as 1968, which failed to pass the filter of Soviet censorship. One can easily imagine how familiar an echo the persecution of all intellectuals in the fictional Kingdom of Arkanar might have sounded in the late 1960s when, after a relative thaw during Khrushchev’s era, Brezhnev restored the stranglehold on information and academia with new Stalin-like trials of writers in 1966.
The book tells the story of scientists supervising a planet whose evolution has reached the stage of the Dark Ages, but where the Renaissance has not happened, as we are told at the beginning of the film. All those who can read and write are persecuted and executed, and Don Rumata, the visiting observer who is forbidden to interfere, suffers because of his despair and helplessness at improving their civilisation.
In contrast to the previous adaptation of the novel by Peter Fleischmann, Es ist nicht leicht ein Gott zu sein in 1989 (which German may have seen, as Andrei Boltnev, who played the titular character in German’s 1984 My Friend Ivan Lapshin, also played Budach in Fleischmann’s film), German chose to reduce the science fiction plot to almost imperceptible hints. This invites comparison with Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of another of the Strugatskiys’ novels, Stalker (1979), not so much because of the common source, but rather because both directors opted for a minimalistic treatment of the science fiction genre.
German’s cinematographic language, which he had so masterfully perfected in Khrustalyov, My Car, combines black and white wide shots reminiscent of Grigori Kozintsev’s Shakespeare films (which is not surprising, as German had studied with him) and the painstakingly precise construction of long shots and relentless camera movements already used in his previous films – which may also have influenced Aleksandr Sokurov’s Faustus (2011). The images are conjured up to present the civilisation of Arkanar in as odd and uncanny a way as possible, leaving the spectator with the difficult task of interpreting the puzzling actions that unfold on the screen. The first two shots of the film set a stark contrast: the black and white beauty of a mountain village overhanging a snow-covered lake, worthy of a Brueghel winter landscape, is immediately followed by the filthiness of the streets where two characters get happily splashed with excrement by a man using his first floor window as a latrine. Throughout the film the muddy, rainy and dirty moistness of the urban environment is echoed in the social conventions of spitting, sneezing, belching and farting, added to the bleeding, gutting and poisoning of brutish violence. Often felt as salutary for the spectator, the choice of black and white, or rather infinite shades of grey, provides a visual echo of the colour and meanness of Don Reba’s guards and ministers, who persecute all forms of culture. This disquieting atmosphere has a hypnotic effect, endlessly dragging the spectator through closed, stifling, claustrophobic indoor spaces, crowded with a cornucopia of objects scattered across rooms and hanging from ceilings, which the protagonists spend their time avoiding bumping into, while minor characters do all they can to divert attention from the main story, even making signs to the camera.
In the novel the real experiment is not observing the barbarians’ evolution, but determining whether the evolved scientists from Planet Earth are likely to regress to a state ruled by emotions. Unsurprisingly, the film’s climax – Don Rumata’s bloody intervention – is reduced to one unique killing, the rest being relegated to an ellipsis, which is probably why German renounced the alternative title of History of the Arkanar Massacre. Rumata’s failing is inscribed into the film’s framing structure: it opens and closes on a snowy landscape, but the innocence of the initial lake is contrasted with another snow-covered countryside where death is omnipresent. A further framing element is the Duke-Ellington-like jazz music played by Don Rumata on an odd and anachronistic clarinet, the only tangible sign of his modernity, rejected by Rumata’s slaves plugging up their ears, and the last words of the film, a little girl complaining that the music makes her retch. But the spectators will know better: this three-hour baroque and nauseous journey through mankind’s worst nightmares is a lesson in cinema and humanity that one is not likely to forget.
Watch the trailer: