Hard to Be a God (Aleksei German, Russia)

HARDtoBEaGOD-actorLeonidYarmolnik-Photo7m copy

By Olaf Möller

Now it’s been delivered, the last work of the late Aleksei German. On Wednesday, November 13th, 10:30 a.m., during the Festival internazionale del film di Roma, his 14-years-in-the-making Hard to Be a God (Trudno byt’ bogom)—for some time called History of the Arkanar Massacre (Istorija Arkanarskoj rezni)—got its first public screening. It is 170 minutes long, black and white, beautiful, brilliant, and like a message from a different time—past or future, who knows, especially with this project.

Therewith, a long wait ended. Whenever a possible line-up of an upcoming Cannes or Venice (never Berlin…) was discussed over the last three or four years, someone was sure to mention Hard to Be a God, if always in a tone that implied “Does anybody know what’s going on with that production?” Begun in 2000, the shooting was only finished in 2006; different edits were screened semi-secretly for trusted friends and opinion-makers since circa 2008 or ’09; around 2010, one heard that it was by now only a matter of finishing the sound, with German working on minuscule clings and clangs. Of course, for each of these stories there was at least one that suggested otherwise—which is to say that rumours abounded, as becomes an endeavour hors les normes by just about any standard. Hard to Be a God would be nothing less than an auteur super-production: a monumentally sprawling science-fiction film that sure as hell wouldn’t give a flying fuck about audience expectations.

Given the previous culmination point of German’s career, Khrustalyov, My Car! (Chrustaljov, mašina!, 1998)—which, as per legend, moved Martin Scorsese to exclaim in front of his fellow Cannes jurors, “This film is so extraordinary even I don’t understand it!” (please, please, please God, let this anecdote be true!)—it was understood by everyone with even a remote interest in the master and his vision that this new one would be…well, more, in every sense possible. And as if that wasn’t enough, talk about German’s health soon started to make the rounds, which led to even more rumours—one of which claimed that the prolonged post-production process had nothing to do with the necessities of the film and all with its creator’s fear of unveiling what he knew would be his terminal work. German, so the story went, knew that expectations, therewith pressures, were so enormous that nothing less than a redefinition of film art would do; and not wanting to experience again the muted puzzlement, if not outright hostility, which had greeted Khrustalyov in Cannes, he deliberately tried to turn Hard to Be a God into a posthumous work. (Of other pressures, like a subsidizing Russian government ever more pissed off by the distended production—even to the point of sending German an ultimatum—we don’t want to talk; obviously, German couldn’t have cared less whether Putin was grumpy or not.) Looking at the way things went, with German dying during the very last stages of sound work (post-synchronization, to be exact) and his wife and son seeing to the film’s finalization, this story sounds somewhat less like a cinephile’s wet dream. Only in Russia…

What lends these tales even more credibility is the fact that Hard to Be a God occupied German’s entire filmmaking life—literally, as he had actually contemplated adapting the eponymous 1964 novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky for his debut feature. Although German’s first draft screenplay for Hard to Be a God is dated 1968—by which point he had already done one film, The Seventh Companion (Sedmoj sputnik, 1967), in tandem with the slightly more experienced Grigorij Aronov (who had a long career at Lenfilm as a hack for all seasons)—some suggest that German started thinking about adapting the novel immediately after its publication. If that sounds a tad far-fetched, consider that German seemed to have been able to carry around choice images, sounds, scenes, stories with him for decades: just take a look at Vladimir Vengerov’s 1965 masterpiece Workers’ Settlement (Rabočij poselok), on which German worked as considerably more than Vengerov’s assistant, and check out how strongly several of the scenes therein foreshadow the feel and rhythm of German’s later My Friend Ivan Lapshin (Moj drug Ivan Lapšin, 1982/84).

Still, Hard to Be a God would likely have been a very different film had German made it in 1968. Staying with the novel for a moment: Hard to Be a God was part of a whole cycle of works by the Strugatskys in which past, present, and future intersect in various ways. The cycle had begun with their seminal 1962 short novel Escape Attempt (Popytka k begstvu), in which (to tell the story from the end) a Jew in a Nazi concentration camp, in his death throes, makes a leap into the future, where he accompanies two cosmonauts on a voyage to a planet ruled by a clique of medieval fascists that has enslaved portions of the planet’s citizenry and condemned them to a very particular kind of penal servitude: they have to figure out how to activate the vehicles left behind by yet another, more highly developed civilization. Compared to this, the set-up of Hard to Be a God is almost simple: here, a future civilization discovers another Earth-like planet whose inhabitants are essentially the same as they themselves were centuries ago. The terrestrials secretly send some of their own amongst the alien barbarians, officially to collect data about this newly discovered people, but in reality to see whether they themselves might regress to an earlier stage of development. Further, these observers are strictly forbidden to make any use of their advanced knowledge, no matter the horrors and miseries they witness and however easy it might be for them to help.

It’s quite possible that, had the film been made in 1964 or ’68, it might have underlined the novel’s political allegory more forcefully than it does now, if only because it would have felt more immediate, even urgent in the ’60s, what with all those recently decolonized (or still decolonizing) peoples importing communism, socialism, or some such in order to give their underdeveloped nations a socio-evolutionary leap of several decades, even centuries. (Not to mention all the nations, starting with the USSR, that had by then already embarked upon that experiment, with decidedly different if always mixed results.) No wonder, also, that the USSR-led invasion of Czechoslovakia nixed any possibility of doing this story for a very long time: it wasn’t until the later stages of Perestroika that Peter Fleischmann, one of Young German Cinema’s more interesting auteurs, was able to mount the first screen adaptation of the novel, the massive West German-Soviet-Swiss co-production Es ist nicht leicht, ein Gott zu sein (1990).

A most intriguing moment that was, as 1) two years earlier, Aleksandr Sokurov had made Days of Eclipse (Dni zatmenija, 1988), based very, very loosely on another Strugatsky work, the 1976 Definitely Maybe (Za milliard let do konca sveta; literally, “A Billion Years Before the End of the World”); 2) one year later, Ardak Armirkulov’s epochal debut, The Fall of Otrar (Gibel’ Otrara, 1991), whose screenplay was co-written by German, went by almost unnoticed (it’s striking now to note the similarities between that film and Hard to Be a God—looks as if Otrar had provided German with an opportunity to try out some ideas and images for his own grand project); 3) FRG cinema witnessed a veritable science-fiction boom: alongside the Fleischmann film, Niklaus Schilling’s The Spirit (Der Atem, 1988), Volker Schlöndorff’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1989), and Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World (1991) were also released, all to rather chilly receptions. (Fleischmann and Schilling, actually, faced ferocious, kind-of career-killing shit-storms, while Wenders at least got his behemoth maudit rehabilitated through the release of a five-hour director’s cut that is indeed much better than the original three-hour version, and maybe his best feature film since the 1969 Summer in the City (Dedicated to the Kinks)). At some point, a curious cinefille unimpressed by received wisdom or cultural orthodoxy will look at this corpus of half-forgotten films and see the brightness of Young German Cinema’s twilight; and as we’re talking clusters, Hard to Be a God gleaned an unexpected film-cultural hipness during its post-production with the release of two more Strugatsky adaptations, Konstantin Lopušanskij’s stupidly overlooked gem The Ugly Swans (Gadkie Iebedi, 2006) and Fedor Bondarčuk’s over-ambitious two-part demi-disaster Dark Planet (Obitaemyy ostrov, 2009), along with a restoration of Grigorij Kromanov and Jüri Sillart’s Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (“Hukkunud Alpinisti” hotel, 1979).

Getting back to Fleischmann, Es ist nicht leicht, ein Gott zu sein met with similar criticism as now faces Hard to Be a God: too nasty, wallowing in mud, dirt, scum, gunk, shit, suffering, and horror—which is like saying that Fleischmann and German shouldn’t have taken their source so seriously. Actually, the Strugatskys were quite concerned with this aspect when they wrote the novel. From their earliest existing treatments for the book, when it was supposed to be a rambunctiously rustic Dumas-esque adventure yarn targeted partly at children, they wanted to imbue their Dark Age world with an historically appropriate kind of physical unpleasantness: lice, stinking hair, flaky skin, noisy farting, feces, and puddles of urine wherever one stepped, relentlessly unconcerned couplings in broad daylight, and, of course, public executions of the most gruesome kind. The political urgency came later, (almost) against at least Arkady’s stated intentions, as a result of the brutal cultural political changes of 1962 and ’63, when Khrushchev kicked off a campaign against modern(ist) art, painting and music in particular, but also cinema, with Marlen Chuciev’s Lenin’s Guard (Zastava Il’iča, 1963/’65/’89) as its most famous victim. (Even so, the political critique did not come across with the force the Strugatskys originally intended: Don Reba, the sinister ruler holding the reins of terror, was originally called Don Rebija, which is an anagram of Berija.) In the beginning, however, there was derring-do and doo-doo—and German took the latter so seriously that quite a few walked out of Hard to Be a God because they simply couldn’t take it any longer.

By so doing, the walkers-out were actively affirming the film’s purpose. Hard to Be a God is very much a work of suffering and endurance, a still life in motion; in contrast to Fleischmann, German ignores more or less every opportunity for super-production grandstanding. There are almost no “big” moments in the commonly understood sense: few and far apart are the shots of masses of extras, and story-wise essentially zilch in the way of spectacle, carnage, and (melo)drama, which also includes a love story that is quite central for Fleischmann but little more than sadly sentimental humanist decorum for German. Instead, scene after scene, plan-séquence after plan-séquence, shows Don Rumata, the observer from the culturally advanced world, stumbling through cramped, barely lit spaces, with strangers, allies or foes, passing by and blocking the view, often chancing a glance towards the audience if not staring directly into the camera.

Those who remember Khrustalyov will feel immediately at home, even though Hard to Be a God doesn’t (seem to) get as lost in swooning movement and motions as did its predecessor, and with good reason. While Khrustalyov has a clearly defined historical setting (the early 1950s of the “Doctors’ Plot” and the death of Stalin) yet plays in a borderland between reality and remembrance/dream, with strange sights and sounds, impossible-to-explain presences, and will-o’-the-wisp-like images from back-then intruding into the film’s here and now, Hard to Be a God—where a man from a highly possible future walks through a cultural past that is also a physical present—is about being caught in a clearly circumscribed place and time, without the chance of escape offered by memories and reveries. Don Rumata is a prisoner of the past—not of history, as the doctor in Khrustalyov was, but quite literally that which is already behind him, those obstacles to human development his civilization has already overcome. He is walking through an all-too-real that-which-was, prohibited from using his knowledge and powers to help bring about a change that will happen eventually, so theory says, but only after certain developments have taken place. Thus impotent, he is doomed to fall back to a more atavistic stage, or rather worse: doomed to realize that any action he makes to alleviate suffering will be useless until change comes nigh, and in fact will only make matters worse. Hard to Be a God is a monstrous and strikingly Russian Orthodox huis clos, convinced that change will come but miserably resigned to the fact that nothing can be done to speed that escape from suffering. Which is to say that German not only still believes, but knows that above all we are frail and weak, even in our bravery. Neither God nor nature really wonders, let alone cares, about our hopes and desires—they simply, irrespectively deliver what will come. Fuck you, mankind, and be happy for what you’ve been given. Quite a final statement.