Once in a few years comes along a film that is so gruelling its becomes painful to watch but that doesn’t necessarily mean its a bad film. Hard to Be a God is one of those films, its Russian, Black & White and 3 hours long and if know anything about Russians they are not the happiest people on the earth. The film was in production for 13 years and it’s director Aleksei German died near the end so his son and widow had to complete the film. German was a perfectionist of the highest order, he only made 6 films in 46 years and Hard to Be a God is the first of his films to have wide distribution and a home video release in English-speaking countries. Hard to Be a God was also the film German had been trying to make since the late ’60s and had a few false starts until he started production finally in 2000.
The film is based on a novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky who are best known to western audiences for writing Roadside Picnic which in turned was loosed adapted by them for Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. Hard to Be a God is their most widely known novel in their native Russia and this is actually its second film adaptation, there was on in the late ’80s and German almost stepped in to direct but was so disgusted by what he saw he declined. It’s about a group of Earth scientists who go to a planet that is like Earth but is still stuck in the medieval ages and in turn are violent monsters. The film adaptation barely mentions this and the plot is barely comprehensible and this is very deliberate by German, he wanted to transport you into this other world then necessarily tell a narrative story.
German’s style is a mixture of deep focus akin to the pioneering work of Orson Welles but with this savage hyper realistic look. It’s a jarring mixture of styles but it works charms. The film is unrelenting but you really need to just let yourself get lost in the film not unlike the films of Wojciech Has like The Saragossa Manuscript which is similar in its endurance test in the film’s length. The film literally throws you head first into the piss, shit and mud that this world inhabits, you can almost smell the filth on-screen. Few films have such an immersive feel and this done with the sound design which is deliberately jarring but realistic and the imagery which is truly starting, the film is also full of astonishing long takes and I would love to know how many cuts are in the 3 hours.
Hard to Be a God is powerful if flawed piece of uncategorisable cinema and is required viewing for anyone with any passing interest in World Cinema. The hellish imagery will stick in your mind for the rest of your life and recalls the work of Hieronymus Bosch. Arrow has compiled an impressive disc to give the viewer background information on Aleksei German’s work and the film in general. There are two interviews with scholars, one is specific on Hard to Be a God and other on German’s work. Svetlana Karmalita (German’s wife and co-screenwriter) introduces the film at a screening and there is also an exclusive interview with their son for this release.