Why Aleksei German’s Hard To Be A God is worth the wait

htbagMud, snot, grime, piss, vomit, mud. They’re the first words I wrote down in my notes whilst watching Aleksei German’s extraordinary Hard to be a God, aka Trydno byt bogom, and they’re also words that I might well have appended to every note I made thereafter.

Especially the word ‘mud’.

It is the filthy, earthy tactility of German’s epic which first impresses the viewer. This is not a glossy CGI feature, with lush cinematography enveloping us in its warm embrace. The world in Hard to be a God is a dirty, cruel and miserable one. Such muddy despair is perhaps the most appropriate feeling to get from a film whose own production was difficult and trudging.

The G in German is a hard G and his surname is often spelled differently to make this pronounciation clear, but however you pronounce it, his is not a name that’s too well known outside his native Russia. But it is a name that carries a great deal of weight with the cinephiles around the world who defied the odds and uncovered his work.

Films such My Friend Ivan Lapshin and Khrustalyov, My Car!, released in 1984 and 1998 respectively, are considered by many to be as important works of Russian cinema as any by the more celebrated Andrei Tarkovsky.

The issue that perhaps most prevents German’s films from taking on greater prominence – besides their limited availability – is found in their cultural specificity. Paradoxically, this is also what makes them so fascinating, and sharing and talking about them so desirable. But I do feel that when one settles down to watch one German’s features, a good few hours of background reading were almost essential to appreciate the film’s true depth of significance.

During the period in which German made the majority of his films, from The Seventh Companion in 1967 to My Friend Ivan Lapshin in 1984, he was living in the USSR and his overall life experience obviously provided rather persuasive influences for his filmmaking. Even though the USSR was no more when he made his final two films,  Khrustalyov, My Car! and Hard to be a God, the same influences quite obviously continued.

Hard to Be a God is based on a novel from 1964, and German reportedly became interested in adapting the book for a feature film very shortly after its publication. The book was written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky and was previously made into a film in 1989, directed by Peter Fleischmann and starring the Bavarian filmmaker Werner Herzog.

The Strugatsky brothers, whose work also provided the inspiration for Tarkovsky’s Stalker, were highly critical of Fleischmann’s efforts, both before his adaptation was made and once they’d seen the finished film. They were reportedly much more keen on the idea of German directing a feature based on their novel.

Hard to be a God tells the story of ‘Don Rumata’, a man who travels from a future version of Earth to an alien planet. That other world is currently going through a historical period that closely resembles our Middle Ages. On this new planet, the Earthman is an observer, effectively witnessing the harsh brutality of The Middle Ages for himself.

Aleksei German’s did not rush in making his Hard to be a God, or History of Arkanar Massacre as it was known for some time during production. Pre-production didn’t begin until 1998, shortly after he finished Khrustalyov, My Car! This pre-production period ran for a couple of years and into production at the beginning of the new millennium. The shoot then went on over the next six years.

It’s startling to think that a filmmaker could spend six years filming what is ostensibly a rather simplistic narrative and set in just a handful of locations, but when one watches Hard to be a God it is a lot easier to understand this lengthy production period. The world that German has created is absolutely loaded with the most minutely detailed elements, its air so thick with smoke and fog and the production design so intricately crafted, not to mention deeply covered in grime and mud, that one can almost smell the rotting flesh and taste the feculence that hangs in the air.

The film was photographed on 35mm by two cinematographers, Vladimir Ilin and Yuri Klimenko, the footage captured by what I can only assume to be a cadre of talented, and incredibly fit, steadicam operators. The camera is constantly ambling about German’s alien-but-not-alien world, moving between extras and side characters, around scenery and props, while always staying focused on the meandering Leonid Yarmolnik. He plays Don Rumata with a real world weariness and gruff authority.

The camera’s line of sight is obscured at times by props, such as fish hanging in front of the lens, or by the characters. The blocking of actors is similar to previous German films in that characters will often stand with the backs to the camera, but the constantly cluttered frame only adds to the sense that we are embedded observers here, much like Rumata,.

Sometimes, the extras also look directly into the lens. this is again something that is evident in German’s other films, and it was clearly a deliberate choice and most likely a direct instruction. Rather than throw the viewer out of the film, as this kind of technique often will, I found the effect here to be incredibly unsettling. It all felt rather like sitting silently to the side, observing the events unfold until somebody to suddenly noticed that I was there. By breaking the fourth wall, German actually made me feel more closely involved with the film and invoked an odd sense of complicity.

In this new world Rumata is treated like a God and at one point, he delivers the title of the film within a line of dialogue. Godhood really doesn’t seem to be as pleasant an experience for him as one might imagine.

And one good reason why is the force known as ‘The Greys.’ They’re attempting to wipe out all intellectuals, but Rumata seems to be resisting this and the film’s voiceover, which fills us in on the backstory and, frankly the bulk of the narrative too, suggests that he’s fighting back by attempting, but failing, to drag this world into the Renaissance.

German’s My Friend Ivan Lapshin was set in 1930s Russia, but that’s by no means the only one of his films to be influenced by that place and time, or particularly that period’s persecution of intellectuals. Those resonances are also here in Hard to be a God, and are perhaps the ones that impart the most impact.

But you won’t need a PhD in Soviet history in order to unpack this film, and and its greatest strengths are undoubtedly in its visceral nature. The very experience of watching the film is overwhelming. As Rumata plays his final blast of haunting flute and the credits roll, don’t be surprised to find yourself checking for dirt under your finger nails or breathing in deeply to smell only the surprising aroma of popcorn, not the expected donkey shit and rotting dog carcasses.