Rotterdam 2014 Review: HARD TO BE A GOD, Russian Science Fiction Unlike Anything Before
Every year it's a delicate game of pick-and-choose when the International Film Festival Rotterdam reveals its roster. With almost 400 titles to choose from, all you can see is bound to be a small sample. But when I spotted Alexei German's Hard To Be A God (Trudno Byt' Bogom), my interest piqued: a three hour long Russian science fiction film, twelve years in the making, six of which were for the actual shooting?
On top of that, the film is an adaptation of a book by the Strugatski brothers, on whose work Tarkovsky's Stalker was based. Reviews from the Rome Festival proclaimed the film to be incomprehensible yet gorgeous, so I went to see it with a healthy mix of anticipation and apprehension...
On the planet Arkanar, people live in medieval conditions, and this entire world has failed to show any progress for hundreds of years. Baffled by the absence of a "Renaissance", Earth has sent a small team of scientists to Arkanar. Their mission is to secretly blend in, investigate its society, and perhaps nudge it a little into a forward direction.
One of these scientists is Don Rumata, disguised as a noble-born bastard, and rumored by the locals to have a God as one of his ancestors. Being big, strong and an excellent swordsman, the charismatic Don Rumata is not the meekest of men, and the years of living on Arkanar have hardened him. The divinity rumor allows him to do a bit more than just nudge: he is able to visit courts, influence aristocrats, save intellectuals from prison, and respond with violence when threatened.
But even when seen as a God, and pushing as hard as he is allowed within his mission, can Don Rumata establish any humanitarian change on Arkanar?
Alexei German cannot be accused of having been prolific: in his career as director, spanning from the late 60s until his death a year ago, he released just five films. The last of these, titled Khrustalyov, My Car!, premiered as far back as 1998. Alexei German had been busy ever since, trying to fulfill his lifelong dream of making a film based on the novel "Hard To Be A God", but died when he was editing together the footage he had gathered during an unbelievably harsh six-year-long shoot.
Now, with some editing help of his wife and son, a scriptwriter and a director themselves, a posthumously finished 177-minute version exists which is currently being shown at festivals. And what a film it is. I can honestly say I have never seen anything even remotely like this before.
Forget about a narrative, even though the film starts with actual narration, because Alexei German wasn't interested in any traditional storytelling. Instead, the film immerses you into Arkanar's world for literally hours, until the protagonist's actions in the last 30 minutes start to make sense all by themselves. Though the details of his plans are never specifically shown, you will understand Don Rumata's hopes, his problems, his exasperation, and you will hate yet applaud his mule-headed stubbornness.
You will also feel you've been part of that world for too long and need a shower or two. For Hard To Be A God is a film which makes you positively wallow in filth. If Titanic made it seem as if you really were on a big boat, by using the engine hum as a constant background drone, Hard To Be A God makes it seem as if you really are in European medieval times, because of the incessant squelching. Mud, straw, drizzle, shit and bodily fluids mingle until the city streets on Arkanar are covered in four inches of diarrhea. You could start a drinking game about the times people get their faces smeared with the stuff, but you'd be in hospital before the end of the film.
In these overcrowded shitholes, the camera clings to Don Rumata in long takes, with a found-footage aesthetic. The camera is even acknowledged by everyone, bystanders yelling things at it incoherently. The audience can do nothing but follow and try to keep eyes on Don Rumata as a point of reference, like a child staying near a parent while traversing a busy market. Similarly, you will desperately try to identify which of the many spitting, yelling, shoving and mooning peoples are friends or enemies. By the time you start to recognize groups and pecking orders, you'll be well into the second half of the film.
But all this immersion does make for a unique experience. You'll feel with Don Rumata when yet another one of his carefully laid out plans fails because of some idiot starting a civil war, or when one set of bullies is removed, only to be replaced by the next. In one shot Don Rumata frees a slave, against the rules and at personal inconvenience. The freed man runs around in ecstasy, slips within seconds in the mud, bashes his head and dies. And all Don Rumata can do is laugh miserably at such stupidity and misfortune. It sums up most of his efforts.
I notice that for much of this review, I keep slipping back into describing Arkanar as if it is an existing world, and this is probably the film's biggest achievement: it looks so real! The black and white cinematography swings from cloyingly claustrophobic to some epic open shots, all of it impressive for not being computer generated. For each intentionally ugly shot there is one of stunning composition and beauty, despite all the fog, rain and caked muck. Art direction and costumes are Oscar-worthy in their excellence, and Leonid Yarmolnik is fantastic as Don Rumata. I left the cinema admiring the film rather more than liking it, but images kept coming back to me for days afterwards (still do, even) and the impression it made on me is undeniable.
Back in 1989, Peter Fleischmann also adapted the novel "Hard To Be A God" into a film, Es Ist Nicht Leicht Ein Gott Zu Sein. That version won awards at Sitges and Fantaspora for special effects and screenplay, and was nominated for best film. But with its spaceships, weird clothing and exotic locations, it resembles David Lynch' Dune more than it resembles Alexei German's film, and that shows just how strong a stamp Alexei German has put on this project, his last ever.
A baffling endurance test, a gorgeous-looking feast of barbarous filth, an intriguing labour of love... Hard To Be A God is all of these and then some. This is hardcore art-house cinema and not for the impatient or squeamish, but many images and performances keep haunting you afterwards.
The many walk-outs probably may-or-may-not have voted, but the IFFR audience gave this a 3.7 out of 5. Not bad for a mostly incomprehensible three-hour-long film!