Trudge, sludge, murk, mire, for three generous arthouse hours. It’s true: Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God goes where few cinematic visions have gone before, or are likely to again. This unique Russian film professes to be a science-fiction parable (based, as it is, on a sci-fi novel by the brothers Strugatsky, whose book Roadside Picnic was the seed for Andrey Tarkovsky’s Stalker), but it feels more like Jabberwocky’s eastern bloc cousin than any trek through some shiny star system, the mucky, muddy parts of Monty Python and the Holy Grail scrutinized, lionized, and revitalized to the Иth degree—call it the Knights Who Say “Nyet!” After a voiced-over preamble we’re quickly plunged, rough and tumble, into the diasporic drudgery: a distant planet, similar to our own but one stubbornly stuck in the Middle Ages, is visited by traveler Anton (Leonid Yarmolnik), posing as a divine dignitary named Don Rumata. His mission: to help the Kingdom of Arkanar’s societal advancement without direct political or cultural intervention. German obsessed over Hard to Be a God for the last 15 years of his life, never quite applying its finishing touches (he died in 2013). The film was completed by his wife and son and premiered at the Rome Film Festival in November of that year to almost universal acclaim (the Russian critics, however, were mixed). There’s something oddly compelling about the single-mindedness of German’s phantasmagoria; Hard to Be a God never feels quite as long as it might (unlike, say, parts of Bela Tarr’s Sátántangó, another dirt-ridden dreamscape that unfolds at a pace a snail might consider leisurely). That’s not to say its 177 minutes exactly fly by, for they don’t. Hard to Be a God is an immersive cinematic experience like no other, a massive, messy slog through fundament—the unaltered, natural features of a world’s surface—measureless (as per Coleridge) to man.
(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth