Based on a novel by the Strugatsky brothers, a favourite source for classic Russian sci-fi cinema, it focuses on a planet which isn’t Earth but could be eventually. We are on the planet Arkanaar, who are currently in their own medieval period, full of blood, puss and mud – where a war is raging between the ‘Blacks’ and the ‘Greys’. Add to this a group of scientists from Earth who once came to observe this society, yet now have become indistinguishably part of it, non more so than Don Rumata, who has become a legend of the land rumoured to be a god. All this really doesn’t matter because German does not give the audience any straws, any clues or and clear narrative.
With its three hours plus runtime, it is a breathtaking feat that it never once takes its foot off the jugular, it is relentless right from the opening frame. Every face is disfigured with boils and scars and there is a lot of human fluid sloshing around and in the mud that consumes the world – the camera glides through bringing you to the pupils of the grotesque and forces you stare at it without flinching. As these apparitions bombard your vision, you constantly find you are in haze of sounds – clatter of wood, clink of metal and voices of unplaceable statements. At one point there everything seems to centre on a ‘tobacconist from tobacco street’ according to the constant jabber.
Incoherence must have been German’s number one goal, there is a parable of sorts to our world here, but any knife edge straight explanation is thrown for a never ending barb wire open wound of a metaphor. It is a challenging watch and it will drain of your love for the medium, but after all the slaughter and disgust the movie puts you through, it is still one of the most elegantly and divinely shot films of recent years. Cinematographers Vladimir Ilyin and Yuri Klimenko give such scope and vision to the malice on show that every drop of phlegm and grain of dirt look entrancing – the camera floats through this world in the wind and like the scientist on that planet, observes and never interacts… Almost never.
Hard to be a God is repulsive, astonishing, terrible and triumphant. Maybe it’s a masterpiece but whether you accept it or not, it will have an effect on you – if you can sit through its torment.