Friends, I have finally managed to watch Hard to Be a God. This medieval science fiction epic is packed to the brim with mud, piss, shit,snot, blood, mud, shit and did I mention mud and shit? Alexei German’s final film confronts us with the dirtiest and most incredible visual rendition of a barbaric medieval world. Unfortunately, that is about all it does.
But before I discuss that, let me briefly explain the premise. This film centres around the idea of an enlightened Earth civilization searching space and they find this planet, earthlike in almost every respect, caught up in it’s own medieval period and on the verge of a Renaissance. Or at least, that is what the scientists believe. Of course, this doesn’t happen and they are stuck in this world of shit and barbarism. It is all very Star Trek but with a depressive Russian sensibility. The film primarily follows one of these scientists, Don Rumata, who the local people believe to be the son of a deity. Don Rumata has naturalised himself with this world and the film follows him as he does stuff. Beyond this, it is difficult to tell what the film is about. The biggest problem with this film is that not only does it seem to take forever for there to be any narrative to grasp on to. It is unclear what any of the character’s motivations are, except for a faction called the Order, who are basically analogous to hyper religious types, although exactly what they believe too is unclear. Don Reba’s motivations are unclear. Don Rumata’s motivations only become somewhat apparent closer towards the end. The film is also 3 hours long. It is obtuse in a way that at times reminded me of Solaris, except Solaris had characters with motivations that were understandable, which made the characters resonate and the philosophical tone of the film work. Nor is it obtuse in a mind bending or surrealistic way that works like say, Inland Empire or deliberately nonsensical and absurd like Cosmos.
What has happened here with Hard to be a God is the narrative structure was lost to the point where some things are just plain confusing. There is one sequence where Don Rumata is arrested for some reason that isn’t clearly explained, possibly heresy or something like that. Then the very next sequence he is free. This was very confusing, considering we didn’t see how he got free. Things just seem to happen in ways that don’t quite make sense, as if those sections had been dropped onto the cutting room floor. The philosophical veneer of the film doesn’t quite work either because of these problems with the narrative of the film and a lack of enough dialogue or exposition. This philosophical dimension only really rears itself fully towards the end, but it is not properly developed.
But enough complaining, let me talk about what the film does right.
What I did love about this film is that it has the most incredible and richly detailed mis- en-scene I have seen in a film like this. It’s shit filled world is presented in such fantastic detail that it is impossible to look away. Even with the problems with the narrative, the visuals of this film are so fantastic that on their own, they manage to keep the film engaging. Almost every frame is a grotesquely gorgeous painting. I also liked the long take style of filming that was smooth, sometimes claustrophobic but always drew me in. The way some objects got in the way, characters looking or sometimes talking to the camera, in combination with the positions and movement of the camera made it an immersive experience. The film also has some excellent performances.
Another aspect of the film I appreciate is in spite of the tone of pure misery it is going for, it is rather restrained in its depiction of violence. It would be easy for a film like this to bathe in blood, but this one bathes in mud and even though it has graphic violence of its own, it never become ridiculous. There is one sequence where Don Rumata is walking through the courtyard of the order and we are treated to these brutal devices of execution that are large wooden penises with spikes operating with some kind of drop and pulley system. They are caked with blood and the gore of woman’s interior, whilst the people attending the device explain how this works in such a matter of fact way. We don’t need the film to show us how it works, the information we get is enough to put the image in our heads and that is enough to be horrified. This sticks out to me as the most potent indicator of the barbarism of the place of Arkanar.
What else is there to say about Hard to be a God? There is little soundtrack to speak of and I have not read the novel the film is based on, so I am not currently any authority on how it compares to the source material. What I can say to conclude this review, however, is that I really wanted to like this film more than I did and that for me, it was a bit of a disappointment. It excels in the visual department, but in regards to it’s storytelling and philosophical intent, it falls flat. However, it is still worth watching if only for the excellent visuals on display, just don’t expect a coherent narrative.