is a Prime Directive applied to earthlings on this foreign world, but it is
much less rigid than the version in Star
Trek. Killing the locals is strictly prohibited, but a little gentle
development guidance is encouraged. Unfortunately, the home-worlders have
collectively turned their backs on intellectual enlightenment in the late Aleksey
Yuryevich German’s science fiction-in-name-only magnum opus, Hard to be a God (trailer here), which screens
during the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival.
should really fortify yourself for this one. Over a decade in the making,
including some six years of principle shooting, German’s adaptation of the
Strugatsky Brothers’ novel is not for the faint of heart or the short of
attention span. Since Stalker was
also based on a Strugatsky novel, Tarkovsky is often suggested as a comparison,
but the dream-like vibe and highly composed black-and-white visuals are also
somewhat to Guy Maddin at his most self-indulgent.
be clear. If you require a strong narrative through-line then stop right here. Throughout
Hard German is far more interested in
setting the scene and rubbing our noses in it than telling us what happens
next. In the future, supposedly intelligent humanoid life is discovered on the
planet Arkanar. Yet, just when its Renaissance period should have started, the
state initiated a campaign against so-called “wise-guys.” Secretly integrating
themselves into society as powerful noblemen, thirty scientists try to do what
they can to protect the beleaguered intellectual class against the forces of
the “Greys,” but Arkanar just does not want to be helped.
focuses on Don Rumata, a rather rakish Earthling in disguise, as he ostensibly seeks
out the hunted Dr. Budakh. However, he spends an awful lot of time farting
around with his servants. From time to time, he will also do a solid for the
Falstaffian Baron Pampa, while sparring with the Greys. Frankly, this probably
makes Hard sound more plotty than it
really is. Think large, festering set pieces rather than fights and chases.
Hard clocks in just
under the three hour mark and German makes the audience feel the passing of
each and every minute. He also supplies several years’ worth of the hardiest
moviegoer’s cinematic quota for pee, poop, and snot. His vision (completed by
his filmmaker son Aleksey Jr. and co-screenwriter wife Svetlana Karmalita)
allows us no illusions regarding just what the Dark Ages entailed.
cinematographers Vladimir Ilyin and Yuri Klimenko make it all look absolutely
breathtaking, often in the manner of a Brueghel painting. (Ironically though, Lech
Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross, an
attempt to render a Brueghel canvas on film is somehow less static and more
accessible than German’s world-building.) Yet, somehow lead actor Leonid
Yarmolnik never wilts under the exhausting force of German’s mise-en-scéne. As
Rumata, he is unflaggingly intense and roguishly charismatic, even when
literally wallowing in the muck and mire.
This is an unusually redolent film. At times,
you can practically smell the mud—at least we’ll call it mud for now. On the
other hand, if you are waiting for a rocket ship or a ray gun then good luck to
you. Although German passed away in early 2013, it is rather eerie watching Hard at a time when Putin also seems to
be choosing militarism and barbarism. Indeed, the linkage between ignorance and
state power is intentional and directly informed by the Soviet experience, but
viewers still have to dig for it. Ultimately, Hard to be a God is a fascinating and often punishing film to
experience. Recommended for those who want to be able to say they have seen it
for themselves, it screens tomorrow (5/16), this Saturday (5/17) and the
following Saturday (5/24) during this year’s SIFF.
Labels: Aleksey German, Russian Cinema, Sci-Fi films, SIFF '14