Saturday 1 August 2015

Hard to be a God (Russia 2013: Dir Aleksey German)

When is science fiction not science fiction? The 1964 novel 'Hard To Be a God' - on which Aleksey German's extraordinary and frustrating film is based - was SF almost by association. Set some time in the future, a group of observers from Earth are posted to a distant planet, also containing human life, which it is assumed has evolved in the same way as our world. At the point of the occupation the planet is roughly at the medieval stage of development. The observers are there to learn and study, but not to intervene in the race's progress, but this proves increasingly difficult in the face of a totalitarian takeover which sees an army of thugs - the Grays - killing all of the planet's intellectuals and artists. Do the alien observers stand by and watch as the massacre continues, intervene and alter the course of the planet's history, or just leave? While the book made some references to the technology deployed by the Earth observers, and was written from a perspective of the central character - Rumata, a man gradually losing his civilised Earth persona as he disappears into his adopted guise as a wealthy Don - it is entirely set within its medieval environment and thus is only marginally a science fiction novel. The book can be read as a treatise on statecraft and a savage attack on power and hierarchy, but is also disturbing, claustrophobic and surprisingly funny.

German's film retains the claustrophobia but similarly abandons almost all of the science fiction elements, apart from one brief shot showing a transportation device which could only have come from future Earth, and the final scenes which also demonstrate that the handkerchief has finally been invented. of which more later. Instead it concentrates over the course of its 177 minutes in totally immersing the audience in a medieval world. The closest cinematic comparisons are probably Tarkovsky's equally lengthy Andrei Rublev (1966) combined with the grotesquerie of Ken Russell's The Devils (1971) or maybe Annaud's The Name of the Rose (1986). But, and believe me, nothing will have prepared you for this. From the breathtaking opening scenes depicting the panoply of village life, like a Breugel painting made real, the camera restlessly and incessantly patrols and roams this world, itself an active participant and material presence in the cares, intrigues and double dealings of its people - no static Tarkovsky lens here. And these people live in filth. They cough, spit, defecate, void the contents of their noses, urinate publicly, eat pretty much anything, smear themselves with excreta, and show their bottoms regularly. Over the course of nearly three hours the viewer longs for the sight of some clean cutlery or even a handkerchief to provide a glint of civilisation, but those luxuries are clearly some centuries from development. Instead the mundanity and sheer relentlessness of the grim life on display rendered this viewer amazed, bored and aghast in roughly equal measures.

Unfortunately much of the source novel's plot, about the attempts of Don Ramata to intervene in the massacre and his exposure as an alien visitor, are totally lost. German's concern is the creation of a world rather than telling a story, and this ultimately renders Hard To Be a God a frustrating and rather soporific viewing experience. Arguably, how successful can a film be if it offers no real chance for the viewer to understand what's happening? However, a couple of days after seeing it, it's a difficult movie to shake off. This is a film that is far easier to write about than to experience. As I type this I'm aware of the need to categorise and understand the film to help describe and make sense of it. Yet, and rather like life itself, scenes from Hard To Be a God replay in my head making me realise that I haven't really understood anything. So maybe German, who sadly is no longer with us, has succeeded in his intentions.

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