Around the World: Hard To Be A God

looks at the underrated world of Russian cinema with Aleksei German’s three hour epic

Over summer many of us will be going to the cinema to watch the latest Hollywood blockbusters. So as an alternative this August the Nouse team is having a look at some of the gems of world cinema, which are often unfairly ignored in favour of their American counterparts. 

Image: Lenfilm

In the history of film, there is perhaps no international cinema more underrated than that of Russia. Over the past century, Russia has produced a number of cinema’s greatest theorists, including Lev Kuleshov, whose ground-breaking works revolutionised our understanding of editing technique, as well as some of its foremost directors, such as Stalker (1979) director Andrei Tarkovsky. Despite their influence, such names are virtually unheard of outside of academic circles, but it is clearly evident why this is the case; Russian cinema is not the most accessible for first-timers. I learned this fact first-hand upon viewing Writer-director Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God (2013); a challenging, three hour-long fever dream, as maddening as it is delightful.

Based on the novel of the same name, the plot of Hard to Be a God is fairly simple. The film sees a group of Earth scientists travel to a distant planet – indistinguishable from our own -where a burgeoning Renaissance movement has been violently quashed, leaving the Kingdom of Arkanar, where we lay our scene, to languish in a perpetual dark age. There, scientist Anton, having infiltrated the local populace under the guise of the noble Don Rumata, searches for a local doctor who has been captured by the nefarious anti-intellectual militia known as ‘the Greys’.

It is a decidedly simple set up, one which director German seems completely uninterested in exploring. One would be hard pressed to complete a plot synopsis of the film without the benefit of multiple viewings and a few cursory glances at the Wikipedia summary. Characters within the film do not betray their motivations through words, with the disparate dialogue consisting of bizarre, incomprehensible sentences. Any prospective viewer who anticipates a thoughtful Sci-fi in the vein of Solaris (1972), or a swords-and-sandals epic, must temper their expectations for fear of sustaining whiplash; Hard to Be a God is like Don Quixote by way of David Lynch and Mad Max, although that description is tenuous at best.  

Our closest ally in the strange world of Arkanar is the aforementioned Don Rumata. Although ostensibly the film’s protagonist, Rumata is entirely alien to the audience. Despite being of Earth, Rumata appears to have been completely absorbed by the society of Arkanar, seemingly indifferent to the atrocities surrounding him. Moreover, he appears uninterested in pursuing his own quest of finding the doctor, instead content to drift around for much of the film, handing out beaming white handkerchiefs to peasants and smearing all manner of filth across his face (expect no explanation). Actor Leonid Yarmolnik’s portrayal of Rumata is incredibly subtle. As the story progresses, the horrors of Arkanar’s society register upon his brow as the backward behaviour of its citizens starts to weigh. Revered as a god by many of the natives, Rumata’s tale seems to ask ‘What if God was one of us?’ And, by the film’s conclusion, we are given the semblance of an answer; he would be a savage like everyone else.

German’s direction is essential in portraying the utter madness of this medieval hellhole. Making extensive use of deep focus, each frame is cluttered with masses of visual information, with backgrounded peasants milling about in the viscous mud as Rumata and his train occupy the foreground. Such attention to detail, both in set design and in the actions of the film’s extras, breathe life into Arkanar, granting the kingdom a sense of authenticity. By contrast, interior scenes feel incredibly claustrophobic, with various items littering the foreground. The camera floats through these scenes in takes so lengthy and disorientating that one often fails to see the cut line from one shot to the next. In cinéma vérité style, subjects within the frame often interact with the camera itself. As a result, the camera – more so than protagonist Rumata – serves as our window into the world of Arkanar, casting the audience as the Earth scientists; observers of this strange culture. It is incredibly difficult to convey the effect that such camera work has upon the viewing experience, but suffice it to say there is not another film quite like it.

Hard to Be a God is a film which is not so much enjoyed as endured and experienced. It is difficult to call German’s opus a great film, yet it is similarly impossible to dismiss it outright. Making it through the near three-hour runtime feels like an accomplishment unto itself, but it is worth a watch if you fancy something utterly unique (and suffer from a particularly potent case of cinephilia). If for nothing else, it certainly earns its place in the weird-and-wonderful pantheon of Russian film, and you would be loony to suggest otherwise.