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Hard To Be A God

Arrow Films

Hard To Be A God DVD coverAleksei German‘s Hard To Be A God is sci-fi in the Tarkovsky tradition, very much a state of mind rather than flashy tech and shiny spaceship CGI. The film is based on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky‘s 1964 novel of the same name, and was completed after the director’s death by his son Aleksei German Jr.

The back story is that a group of earth scientists (although they don’t seem very scientific) have been sent to a alien world, a planet whose evolution is currently entrenched in the unprecedented filth of mediaeval squalor, their mission to help (or is it just to observe?) this fledgling civilization. Civilization, or should that be lack of, as this is a world locked in an endless cycle of ignorance with the local militia slaughtering anybody that doesn’t grin like a gormless idiot (mostly directly into the screen).

Hard To Be A God

The Greys, as they are suitably called, are ruthlessly snuffing out any glimmer of progress, dispatching the “bookworms” and learned types in a parade of increasingly extravagant deaths that are so blasé they are almost comical – one poet is drowned head-first in his own latrine. The religious fanatics are taking a toll on the natives too. Killing the women folk like split fruit on giant wooden phalluses, filling the skyline with dangling corpses whose heads are covered in fish-scales to encourage the crows to peck out the eyes — forget Bansky, this is the true dismal land.

Hard To Be A God

The weather doesn’t help either, with hammering downpours reminiscent of Nick Cave‘s biblical epic And The Ass Saw The Angel‘. Everything is clogged down, covered in omnipresent mud, hope reduced to a withering reflection in the cold grey water. You could say this is very Russian, and the kaleidoscopic camera work sucks unflinchingly at every grotesque detail, swirls manically from extreme claustrophobic close-ups to wide-angled sweeps in a bewitching monochrome that enfolds our film’s protagonist, Don Rumata.

Hard To Be A God

He’s one of the earthlings in question, who feels a need to nurture some form of “enlightenment” among this barbarity. He’s clearly lost his way though, opted to be less observer and more debauched native; the opening shot of him stumbling awake over the remains of a massive Bacchanalian blow-out is one such pointer and I suspect the fact the locals regard him as a god hasn’t helped him keep a healthy perspective on things either. Through his jaded machismo you joyride through this fallen world’s brutal outlook, wallow in its ugliness. Every frame is insanely choked in a curio-shop intensity that knots you up in waves of utter bewilderment. A bewilderment the viewer shares with Rumata as he tramples his non-intervention pact into the mud and plays god with this alien world’s future.

Hard To Be A God

Hard To Be A God is a film that exists on its own wavelength, where the second sitting is a thing to be savoured, just as my first left me buzzing in a confused state of pure overload. A saturation that, like Wojciech Has‘s Hour Glass Sanatorium or Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s Holy Mountain, has to be tuned into to be fully appreciated. One where the camera sees beauty where there is none and shows us how fragile the notion of civilisation really is.

-Michael Rodham-Heaps-

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