You’ll know within the first few minutes of the impossible to completely describe and classify film Hard To Be A God if you’re going to make it through all three hours of this carnival of cinematic madness. In production for 13 years with director Aleksei German passing away before the film could be fully completed (his wife and son finished the herculean job), this is a continuously staggering and all-together monumental piece of filmmaking, and it’ll likely prove to be a severe endurance test for even the most discerning, adventurous viewer.
This is a Russian language medieval science-fiction film, shot in black and white, and offering nothing in the way of audience comfort; this hellish vision feels as uncompromising as anything I can think of, and it offers sights and sounds of such striking and odd depravity that people are likely to be disturbed and perplexed in equal measure. Based on the novel by the Strugatsky brothers, the story involves a group of scientists who journey to a planet that mostly resembles Earth, but the twist is that the society that inhabits the planet is culturally and technologically challenged to the point of almost ludicrous imagination. The people have violently suppressed any form of advancement (imagine if the Renaissance movement was skipped entirely), using murder and scare tactics against anyone demonstrating intelligence.
One of the scientists decides to sneak his way into the Kingdom of Arkanar in an effort to offer help to the people, but he’s met with all sorts of opposition, and his ideals continually prove to be shattered all the way until the end. This film is consistently disgusting, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as dirty and grimy and all together vile. There are repeated shots of people puking, passing their bowels, yelling asinine noises, playing a variety of musical instruments for no apparent reason other than to just making noise, and I swear, there are more than a few moments where the camera lingers on the grotesque face of a person to an almost awkward degree. Werner Herzog would do backflips for this movie. German and his various collaborators created one of the ultimate cinematic nightmares, and because the film operates in an oblique, circular fashion, there are times when you feel like the film is doubling back on itself; this is one of those pieces of work that’s interested more in atmosphere and minutiae than it is with massive plot developments.
This film is fascinated by manure, pain, mud, filth, disease, water, and people spitting, and the themes of society’s inherent ability and propensity for self-destruction feel sharp and well observed and sadly relatable. It’s a travesty that German didn’t live long enough to see the completed version of this insane, instantly legendary piece of work. After only one viewing, I’ve only begun to scratch the surface.
Review by Nick Clement