Hope in Despair, and Beauty in Revulsion: Trudno byt bogom (Aleksei German, 2013)
Labeled as one of the biggest perfectionists among his peers, Russian film director Aleksei Yuryevich German is one of the most significant and influential figures in the history of the Soviet cinema of the late 20th century. Uncompromising and innovative throughout his career, German, in his philosophically rigorous works, kept testing the potentialities of film aesthetics to grapple with the conundrums of the collective psyche, vanishing memories, and ethical dilemmas and paradoxes of the totalitarian regime. Due not only to the multiple obstacles created by Soviet censorship, but also to his now legendary slow and laborious work methods, the Russian director created only five thematically and aesthetically distinctive films. Trudno byt bogom (Hard to Be a God, 2013) can be regarded as his magnum opus.
German first began thinking about an adaptation of the well-known science-fiction novel under the same title written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky even prior to his directorial debut with Proverka na Dorogakh (Trial on the Road, 1968). Having started to develop a script (in consultation with Boris Strugatsky) in the late 1960s, he had to abandon the project because of the toughened censorship apparatus in the aftermath of the deteriorating political situation after Russia’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Soviet censors considered the project politically inappropriate.1 It took two decades, before Hard to be a God went into production again, only to be interrupted once more by the major political changes marked by the collapse of the Communist system and democratisation of Russia as well as German’s hesitations after he learned of a filmic adaptation of the Strugatsky brothers’ novel being undertaken by another filmmaker, Peter Fleischmann.2 German returned to the project in 2000 and worked on the film till the end of his life. Sadly, the director passed away in 2013, before completing the final stages of sound editing. It was then that German’s family members—his widow and creative partner Svetlana Karmalita as well as his son, film director Aleksei German Jr.—finalised the post-production process posthumously.
A plot of Hard to be a God appears to be rather distinct from German’s previous films. Whereas all his earlier films were set in Soviet Russia, the action of Hard to be a God takes place in Arkanar, an imaginary Earth-like planet whose inhabitants recall terrestrials before they had advanced to the Renaissance era. The principle character is a historian, played here by Russian comedian and popular TV host Leonid Yarmolnik, one of a group of people sent from the future planet Earth for an undercover operation to inspect the development of Arkanar’s medieval society. He disguises his earthly origins by acquiring an alien identity: Don Rumata, “an illegitimate son of Goran, a local pagan god who was born from the god’s mouth.”3.
In order to succeed, the visitors must assimilate with the local “barbarians”, and thus, they are strictly prohibited from using their advanced skills and superior knowledge as this might alter the natural development of the planet’s history. The present of Arkanar is determined by a rising authoritarian regime, referred to as “the Greys” and ruled by Don Reba, who leads a ruthless campaign against educated people. Eventually, enraged by the Greys’ killing of his lover Ari, Rumata breaks the rules of conduct and launches a pitiless massacre, only to find out that after the Greys have been defeated, “the Blacks”, an even more oppressive and belligerent religious group, take power.
“Where Greys triumph, Blacks always, always come in the end”, a fatigued and confused Rumata tells the chronicler in one of the final scenes of the film. This can be understood as a metaphor for the political situation in German’s own country. Indeed, film critics and scholars draw parallels between Arkanar and the Stalinist Soviet Union, or even between Arkanar and contemporary Russia, taking Don Rumata for Vladimir Putin. As Anton Dolin points out, many interpreters of the film view the final massacre and ethical issues Rumata faces as a commentary on the impossibility of a bloodless change of the state of things in Russia.4 Even though German himself acknowledged the importance of present-day political realities for the final shape of the film’s narrative, the parallels between the plot and contemporary events in Russia can not exhaust multiple layers of meaning intrinsic to the film, especially given the fact that it took almost half a century before it was completed. 5
The aesthetic dimension of German’s last work – its characteristically tactile images, unpredictable chance encounters, and rich soundtrack – is as (or even more) relevant for understanding the film’s complexity. As Mikhail Iampolski emphasises, in contrast to common readings of German’s films, the reconstruction of contextual and/or historical situations and epochs is not what the director sought after in his films.6 Obsessive attention to details results from German’s desire to make the presence of the past felt, but not necessarily reproduced. In other words, rather than striving for enclosed signification, German impregnates every detail and sound with boundless possible meanings that make his films, including the last one, unrepeatable experiences of a subjective time. The chronotope of Hard to be a God, therefore, does not situate itself in the past, or in the future: it is located in Rumata’s present. The past of the Earth he is stuck in is Rumata’s present, not the history or the realm of collective memories. Rumata literally is in a time which was already behind him, witnessing a crisis that the people of Earth have already overcome, but which he has to live through again.
In consequence, the boundaries between the actual and the virtual, between the meaningless and the meaningful, between the allegoric and the incidental, as well as the fictional and the authentic are considerably blurred in the film. Consider the voice-track. The voices heard in the film are rarely synchronised with the images. In many scenes where characters enter and leave the frame, the sound level stays the same, casting doubt on the part of the spectators about the origin of the voices they hear. “A tobacconist from Tobacco Street. A very smart man. He said…” – an off-screen voice repeats the phrase in different scenes of the film. Despite the apparent significance of the tobacconist’s words, the spectator can not know what the tobacconist said, nor who pronounces these words about him. Due to its distinctive aesthetics, Hard to be a God proposes a contract between the spectator and the filmmaker, in which the former’s knowledge of what is happening on the screen is very limited, whereas the director’s knowledge is much broader.
Characters gazing straight at the camera is another instance of the filmic enunciation of the present. (The film’s first cinematographer, Vladimir Ilyin, died from cancer in 2006 and Yuri Klimenko succeeded him.) This technique of breaking the so-called fourth wall can be traced back to German’s previous films. However, in contrast to My Friend Ivan Lapshin, where only a few characters are granted this transgression, in Hard to be a God almost every person who appears on screen could unexpectedly glance at the camera, or even address it directly. Moreover, camera in Hard to be a God very often pans or tracks away from the principal characters, generating an unfixed point of view which instead focuses on unrecognised bodies, material details and textures of things. By these means, German draws the spectator inside the frame, almost making sure that they feel the tactile qualities of the overwhelmingly muddy and gory world of Arkanar. This builds a direct connection between the spectator and the haptic images on screen, while at the same time further complicating the identification with the story. Formally speaking, it can be argued that by recurrently breaking the fourth wall and disconcerting the diegetic realm, German shifts from a preconstructed story to one open to aleatoric encounters, and establishes a structural similarity between the “undecided” camera’s point of view, Rumata’s character, and the figure of the author himself – all three exposed to the contingency of the existence.
“I was never taught, hassled, or had my nose rubbed in shit by any director. I’m a nonprofessional, and that forces me at every stage to invent cinema—my own, the kind of cinema that interests me. One that’s somehow different from everybody else’s. It’s never been done this way before me”, says German.7 Hard to be a God successfully proves to be an invention of the director’s own cinema. It is a cinema of affect; a cinema in which spectators have to rely less on the information they get from characters’ actions and motivations, than on their own sensory experience.
“It is overwhelming, challenging, gorgeous and repugnant: A dive into a medieval hellhole more graphically filthy than even Bergman’s The Seventh Seal or Ken Russell’s The Devils, a quasi-historical dystopia in which bodily fluids are forever unhygienically dropped, flung or spat.”8. The use of adjectives as different as “gorgeous” and “repugnant” describing one and the same thing may sound contradictory – but not in this case. Hard to be a God is often described as unbearably gory and abhorrent and, at the same time, aesthetically striking. Daniel Witkin, for instance, writes that the film’s “ugliness is unapologetically grating, but German’s almost casual mastery of detail, from flames reflected in the eye of a dead cow to a number of certainly tricky maneuvers involving birds in flight, remains breathtaking.”9 Jonathan Romney, for his part, points out that after watching the film he felt “as much overwhelmed, oppressed, exhausted by it as bewitched.”10 These comments by reviewers for popular as well as cinephilic film journals and websites around the world are in compliance with German’s intention to create a tactile aesthetic experience of imaginary world. The director explained his aims as follows: “I said: let’s try to make a film that has a smell to it; film the medieval era through a keyhole, as if we had lived there ourselves.”11 While creating this multi-sensorial world, German took inspiration from painters such as Pieter Brueghel and Hieronymus Bosch. As Eugénie Zvonkine writes, the director had created an elaborate reference system that consisted of reproductions of paintings and their fragments put together in what German called “inspiration panels”. Thus, the eclectic and grotesque shots that we see in the film – especially those with mundane details such as food, furniture, and clothes – are based on actual paintings dating from the 15th to the 17th century.12 However, German did not simply reproduce fragments from the paintings into recognisable references; rather, he recreated them inducing an atmosphere full of liquid and ghastly substances into his mise en scène. This working method demonstrates German’s creative interest in the cinematic recontextualisation of paintings used to inject a haptic quality into the represented objects on screen.
In addition, the director’s emphasis on the carnal side of painterly figures perfectly exemplifies his interest in fragility of human’s body. From the very beginning of his career, German was intrigued by the physicality of life, but it is in his last film that images of weakness and frailty of the human flesh take a central role. Scenes depicting cruel punishments and murders, wobbling bodies and bloody corpses, among other bodily manifestations of human suffering and agony, expose the spectator to a thin boundary between death and life. Though the reception of the film was mixed, Hard to be a God reached its goal – to make the spectator see and feel something one tries not to think about. As the director states:
It’s a film about the search for a way out in this world: to slash, to be gentle, to observe, to help – how is one to live? If there is no way out no matter what the hero does, everything turns to blood. You don’t want to kill, you want to be kind – it’ll be the way it is, nothing will change for the better. You want to kill – well, reforms will begin, but nevertheless you’ll become a terrible man with blood on your hands.13
Hard to be a God leaves faith in a possibility of change, and yet it disarms a person who wants to speed the change up by emphasising that nothing can be done to avoid or skip suffering. A film about the inability to change the way things are is both an existential reflection on human life and an auteurist commentary on the dialectics of hope and despair one faces in authoritarian regimes.
- Anton Dolin, German: interv’iu, esse, stsenarii. (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2011), p. 659. ↩
- Ibid. p. 663. ↩
- This casting decision should not surprise us, given German’s inclination to use comedians, such as the legendary Yuriy Nikulin in Dvadtsat dney bez voyny (20 Days Without War, 1977) or Andrey Mironov in Moy drug Ivan Lapshin (My Friend Ivan Lapshin, 1985), for the main roles of “serious” characters ↩
- Anton Dolin, “God Complex”, Film Comment 51:1 (2015): 32 ↩
- In his interview with Dolin, for instance, German compares two waves of repression—the Greys and the Blacks—as analogous to bureaucratic and political oppression in Russia. He even states that conditions in Russia have not considerably improved between the late Stalinist period and the present day [5. Dolin, German: interv’iu, esse, stsenarii, op. cit., pp. 271-272. ↩
- Mikhail Iampolski, Yazyk — telo — sluchay: Kinematograf i poiski smysla, (Moscow: Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, 2004), pp. 278-280 ↩
- Quoted in Dolin, op. cit., p. 653 ↩
- Dennis Harvey, “The Mess of Life: Aleksei German’s Hard to be a God”, Eat Drink Films, 2015, https://eatdrinkfilms.com/2015/06/26/the-mess-of-life-aleksei-germans-hard-to-be-a-god ↩
- Daniel Witkin, “In ‘Hard to Be God,’ the Past is Another Planet”, Moscow Times, 2014, https://themoscowtimes.com/articles/in-hard-to-be-god-the-past-is-another-planet-32453. ↩
- Jonathan Romney, “Film of the Week: Hard to Be a God”, Film Comment, January 28, 2015, https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/aleksei-german-hard-to-be-a-god. ↩
- Anton Dolin, German: interv’iu, esse, stsenarii, op. cit., p. 615. ↩
- Eugénie Zvonkine, “The artistic process of Aleksei German”, Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema 9:3 (2015): 161-164 ↩
- Quoted in Dolin, German: interv’iu, esse, stsenarii, op. cit., p. 600. ↩