Monday’s* Movie You Might Have Missed: Hard to Be a God (2013)
*for any Hawaiian or Alaskan readers I might have
At several times during the 2 hour and 57 minute runtime of Hard to Be a God, I considered putting the rest of the film off until tomorrow. It’s one of the most difficult films I’ve ever seen. It is gross in that word’s most primal sense. It swims beneath layers of mud, feces, piss, spit, and mucus. It is an endurance test of vile imagery.
Yet every time I paused it, I realized that I had to finish it, in one sitting. Beneath the scum and shit is one of the most astonishing nightmare visions I’ve ever seen in a film. If you could get a glimpse of a horrifying, totally alien civilization and do so from the safety of your home, behind a screen… well, wouldn’t you?
Maybe not. Perhaps if the world is so dire, so grotesque, so utterly without redemption, that might not be something you want to see. And that is completely understandable. But one of the joys of watching movies for me is when a director gives us a completely unfettered vision of a world that can only exist in film. Hard to Be a God is one of the most complete, astonishing visions that you’ll see in any movie.
Hard to Be a God was the final film by Russian filmmaker Aleksei German. It took him six years to film and he died before it was was finally released. The plot is both straightforward and beside the point. It takes place on an alien world called Arkanar. It resembles Earth, and is populated by a very human-like species. The main difference? They are about 800 years behind Earth, still in their own Medieval period. A group of scientists journeyed there to observe the unfolding of what they hoped would be Arkanar’s renaissance. They blended in with the populace and pledged to not interfere with any of the planet’s sociopolitical developments.
The renaissance never came. The population of Arkanar turned on its intellectuals and artists, executing them en masse. Now stuck on a planet that is stuck, willingly, in its own Dark Ages, we meet our protagonist (Leonid Yarmolnik). He goes by the title Don Rumata. He rules a small fiefdom, aided by the tall tale that he is the descendant of a god. The film is essentially a day in his life. It is an aimless day. He ostensibly has a goal: to find a doctor who has been kidnapped by a rival baron. But Rumata wanders from place to place in a haze of disillusioned stupor. The wandering becomes the point of the film. Plot points do emerge, but they do so with little warning or sense of an arc. Only near the end, when an act of violence becomes a personal matter for Rumata, does he become energized.
Yarmolnik’s performance is one of remarkable endurance; not only does he lead us on a tour of this hellscape, but he so convincingly plays a man worn to total indifference from having been trapped here. The fetid squalor is unrelenting. Everything drips. Everything. Everyone is filthy. The sound effects consist heavily of the sort of human noises that sound editors normally try to edit out. We hear every grunt, sniffle, cough, and squelch. The worst squelches are the mysterious ones.
My description of this film might seem like an attempt to make people not see it. That is not the case. I’m trying to be clear: Hard to Be a God is a profoundly difficult film to watch. It made me nauseous. It might simply bore some to tears. But it is not simply a self-indulgent film. The disconnect from any plot made sense to me early on. It helps us more quickly feel submerged in German’s world, and what a world he has created here. It contains horrors that would make Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel proud. Nothing here is vile for the sake of it. German grosses us out to immerse us in his creation, not to repel us. Some might still be repelled. I almost was. But there is something so fascinating about this film. If I could take a tour of the world within Bosch painting with the assurance that I would face no danger, I would do so in a heartbeat. Hard to be a God is as close as I’ll get to that.