Cinema has been transporting us to other worlds since the Méliès brothers sent us on our first trip to the moon in 1902, but no moviegoer has ever before glimpsed a planet as miserable and mud-spattered as Arkanar. It is Earth-like, and indeed bears inhabitants and a culture similar to Earth’s, but the Earth of a millennium ago. It’s mired in its dark ages, a world of filth and violence and faint flickers of enlightenment struggling against militant ignorance. Spending nearly three hours there courtesy the late Russian writer/director Aleksey German’s Hard to Be a God, now out on Kino Lorber DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming, is as astonishing as it is grueling.
You experience Arkanar through Rumatsky (Vasiliy Domrachyov), a member of a small group of Earth scientists sent to the planet to study it and, if possible, guide it unobtrusively out of its medieval despond. In his guise as a nobleman, he searches for a poet named Budakh in order to save him from a Cultural Revolution-like purge of what pass for intellectuals. But be forewarned that this thin sliver of plot will not sustain you. To experience Hard to Be a God properly and emerge on the other side, you have to give yourself over to its dreadful immersion.
German starting working on the film in 2000 and wasn’t done with post-production at his death in 2013. And every day he spent is there on the screen, in gorgeous black and white. His restless camera tracks and pans endlessly. Most sequences are shot in tight quarters, often in near close-up, and every other shot features a hank of dangling rope, the passing point of a spear, a torch, or even a warty villager, all barging into the foreground, creating another layer of claustrophobia. And then the camera will glide through a stone doorway and reveal an entire castle, writhing with activity, clumps of black-robed monks huddled in its mud in the distance. Every face you see, apart from Domrachyov’s lank but conventional looks, appears hand-picked with Fellini-esque care for maximum unpleasantness. And in nearly every scene, excrement competes with mud, blood, and mucus for the focus of a new abasement.
Hard to Be a God was adapted from the novel of the same name by the Strugatsky brothers, the Russian sci-fi titans who also wrote Roadside Picnic, the novel that served as the basis for Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Hard to Be a God resembles Stalker only in its uncompromising nature; if there is any film to compare it to, it’s Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky’s own medieval opus. But the very fact that German’s film can be mentioned in that company should give you some idea of its singular, otherworldly power.
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