Hard to Be a God (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
24Jul/150

Hard to Be a God (2015)

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Scientists have discovered a planet identical to Earth, populated by humans, but moored in an unchanging landscape of violence.  On this planet, the thinkers of the Renaissance were slaughtered, and those who try to conceive a better life are quickly silences.  Earth dispatches some individuals with a mission to save the few thinkers left in this violent place before it's too late.  Aleksey German directs Hard to Be a God.

PlatterUsually, when I watch a film based on a novel, I go on to read the novel because I enjoyed the film and want to get a glimpse of what made the director wish to adapt this particular work.  In the case of Hard to Be a God, a decades-in-the-making film directed by a man who died while it was still being produced, it's so textured and layered with images endless in their grotesquerie that it's easy for me to imagine the words which gave rise to those sights.  But instead of seeking inspiration I'm more seeking an explanation, as Hard to Be a God is one of those elusive works of art I wish came with footnotes.

Yes, dear reader, Hard to Be a God has humbled me to my core.  It seems impenetrable, and one whose mysteries I would like to decode with a second viewing.  But that second viewing may not come for a long time because I was bored throughout much of Hard to Be a God.  I can't deny its majesty on a technical or production-based level, and the patient multi-layered tracking shots exist in a camera which floats along like an apostle to grime and disgust.  But as the sparse dialogue revealed a growing unrest within the population and one image of violence and torture transitioned to the next, I couldn't help but be tired by the endless parade of despair.

Yet, Hard to Be a God isn't without its humor, and there are certainly people in the narrative who have some degree of power and control over their lives.  The despair comes more from the inevitable continuation of one scene to the next.  A man might be simply answering someone's question in one scene then have his hair torn out the next.  A woman exposing her breasts to a chorus of laughter might, in transition, be then in line to take a plunge to her death as a gigantic wooden dildo plunges into her vagina.  Children are rare, but to my memory there is not a single child who escapes the film without being abused or tormented in some way.

In a world where philosophical thinking is extinct, humans learn to communicate with their fluids instead of their thoughts.

In a world where philosophical thinking is extinct, humans learn to communicate with their fluids instead of their thoughts.

All of this sounds difficult to get through and depending on your sensibilities it may be impossible.  But the omnipresent viscera just became another part of the landscape as time went on and I less noticed the torments inflicted on each person in lieu of how their environment allowed these torments to exist.  Director Aleksey German (hard "G" pronunciation, like "good") doesn't make this easy, even when we consider the background of How to Be a God is on an Earth-like planet where the Renaissance never happened and enlightened philosophies never came to be.

In this regard, Hard to Be a God is a smashing success.  I have a morose fascination with narratives which must have required stomachs lined with titanium to complete, and the universe of Hard to Be a God certainly required that.  As an intellectual exercise I loved thinking about how the various forms of physical pleasure and pain became substitutes for conversation or any kind of critical thinking.  It makes the sheer variety of violence and consumption on display an intriguing exercise in translation as I try to figure out what the characters are communicating with a slap when I might use a sharp sentence.  Their world is not too far off from how the Hellraiser Cenobites must have experimented when blurring the lines of pleasure and pain, as they are always at the precipice of some pleasurable consumption or painful destruction at any point.

German's choice to present this world in black and white forces our attention onto the physical interactions between each character.  It becomes easy to see the outlines of the bleeding figured, or the approach of a man clad in armor who may kick the tortured townspeople aside before being assaulted himself.  I almost feel as though I require a new kind of thinking to process Hard to Be a God because of the way German so directly confronts the texture of their lives.  This textured approach extends to the production design, which in many shots look like a painting created solely from drywall, vomit, blood, snot, sweat, urine, and whatever else the waste production lines of our bodies are capable of.  It's horrid, but beautiful, and intertwines our mortal shells with flimsy construct and treacherous earth in such a way our enlightened post-Renaissance philosophies have taught us to ponder rather than experience.

In spite of the always-present violence Hard to Be a God is a stunning visual experience.

In spite of the constant violence Hard to Be a God is a stunning visual experience.

This brutal insistence of the present moment in Hard to Be a God is why its near three-hour run time began to wear on me so heavily and my mind wanted to tap out.  German's stark presentation invites our brains to feel along with the characters, but in the absence of much dialogue and an extremely floaty narrative it becomes tiring.  Conceptually speaking, it makes sense Hard to Be a God would not have much in the way of a plot since even a plot requires some degree of critical thinking no one seems to be capable of.  But as bits and pieces fall into place, bodies pile up, and whispers of a revolution start I was more primed to be aware of the next violent display and less any act by the characters.

Hard to Be a God is so indifferent to the actions of its characters it reads like the dark side of Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev.  Both German and Tarkovsky are of Russian origin, and both employ a steady style composed of long takes with physical interaction.  But Hard to Be a God reads indifferent to the way the sum of a person's physical experiences contributes to their knowledge and emotional framework.  While, again, it's something of the point as Hard to Be a God can be read as the Russian governments indifference to its suffering population, the camera's indifference becomes my indifference.  Is it a failure of empathy on my part that I no longer became disgusted as time went on, or was German's indifference to their suffering so effectively communicated that further reflection in a world of philosophical nihilism is preemptively negated?

I don't have easy answers to this and, sometimes, when a film raises these kinds of questions I'll give it a "Like" rating because I am feeling so contemplative afterward.  But I find myself at a philosophical impasse with Hard to Be a God.  I would have to sacrifice the parts of myself which define my humanity in order to pass any judgment on what is good or bad in this world - and if I'm no longer human, what's the point?  An interesting intellectual exercise to be sure, but not when presented in a film I am uncertain to find any answers in.

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Tail - Hard to Be a GodHard to Be a God (2015)

Directed by Aleksey German.
Screenplay written by Aleksey German and Svetlana Karmalita.
Starring Leonid Yarmolnik, Yuriy Tsurilo, Natalya Moteva, and Aleksandr Chutko.

Posted by Andrew

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