Exacting in its design and disorienting in its method, Hard to Be a God is a vision of civilization as a mud- and shit-streaked purgatory. Set on an alien planet in the thick of an unyielding pre-Renaissance squalor, the late Russian director Aleksei German’s final masterpiece is a grueling three hours of roving depravity. Its protagonist (Leonid Yarmolnik) is a citizen of Earth sent to observe the progress of a planet called Arkanar, where he takes on the guise of an esteemed god called Don Rumata. His anthropological sojourn prevents him from interfering with the planet’s progress, so Don Rumata takes the role of a largely passive observer, watching as this society destroys its university and murders its writers and intellectuals, while children peddle their eyeballs in the street.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this material comes from a work of speculative science fiction written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union. The premise represents an utterly appropriate final film for German, whose works are almost always set just before decisive moments in his country’s history. The director made just five other films in his career, which was beset with delays imposed by government authorities and production difficulties. His two most recent, 1985’s My Friend Ivan Lapshin and 1998’s Khrustalyov, My Car!, are, respectively, set on the eve of the Stalinist purges and in the days leading to the dictator’s death. German’s cinema, though, is only tangentially engaged with political machinations. They remain elusive to his characters, who are the functionaries, soldiers, artists, and communal dwellers reckoning with the rules and customs of a present that is always conditional.
In Hard to Be a God, the rules seem to be dwindling and the customs are long gone. The film collapses past and present, taking place 800 years in the future on a planet that subsists in a Hobbesian state of being. The intelligentsia hang from nooses in public squares, drenched in lard and bedecked with spangles. Indoors, there are mutterings of insurrection and squads of “Blacks” and “Greys”—the former guided by religion, the latter a band of foreign invaders—looking to take control of Arkanar. Both German’s camera and Don Rumata have a fitful interest in wartime maneuverings, though, and are more inclined to roam around open halls teeming with filthy slaves and a clutter that results in a sort of makeshift shantytown. Hard to Be a God is willfully and easily distracted by petty arguments, tables of rotten food, and a seemingly endless cascade of bodily fluids.
The film’s lucid images are surreal in their dimensionality. German’s black-and-white compositions all seem to contain a dozen planes of action and intrigue, as passersby dangle meat, swords, and entrails in front of the camera without revealing their bodies. As the eye struggles to absorb these pictures, which are always in motion, their heavy contrasting has a curious leveling effect. It’s as hard to distinguish blood, mud, and excrement as it is to identify many of Hard to Be a God’s supporting characters, who may be armored in one scene and nude in the next. Simultaneously, the camera is engaged in an exercise with POV that’s both alienating and democratizing: We become familiar with the perspective from Don Rumata’s glistening, elaborate armor, but are just as often surprised to find the camera pull back from a minor character, or engaged in its own investigations. Actors stop to smirk at or talk to it, but the soundtrack might not include their voice.
Most of these techniques will be familiar to viewers familiar with German’s work, which is choreographed with a Felliniesque social grandeur, but tethered to a neorealist’s eye for detail and quotidian matters of social justice. There, communal apartments have rotating casts of characters joking and singing and drinking, but their grousing is about sugar rations and their pranks have fun with bureaucratic ineptitude. In Hard to Be a God, servants get their yuks from prodding exposed asses, and most of the grousing is about whether certain bodily odors should be equated with filth or impending death. Like Don Rumata, the viewer is a bystander to history repeating itself, willfully refusing to evolve. Late in the film, Don Rumata brings some art to Arkanar, but barely anyone hears it and no one appreciates it. That the most complex undertaking of German’s career amounts to the ne plus ultra of gallows humor is a sad bit of commentary, but it ought to cement his reputation as a quintessential Russian filmmaker.