Issue 46 (2014)
Aleksei German: Hard to Be a God (Trudno byt’ bogom, 2013)
reviewed by Frederick C. Corney© 2014
Aleksei German’s Empire of the Senses
A nightmare vision clogged with filthy snow, liquid, bubbling mud, driving rain, murky fog, a foul wind’s scant relief, outhouses protrude from shoddy huts crammed with life’s detritus, bells, ropes, chains, spikes, skins stuffed with god-knows-what, animal carcasses dangle from the rafters knocking and smearing the heads of the denizens. Filthy lice-ridden bodies in stinking rags reel, stumble, lurch, peer from doorways, shit-smeared faces fringed with greasy, lank hair leaking tears of pain, grief, rage. A pall of filth and disease across the world. Faces scarred and misshapen, slapped, pinched, pulled, rubbed with shit and mud, ragged tombstone teeth, plucked from rotten gums, noses sniff and scent, run with snot, are tweaked, pulled, bloodied, broken, and pinched against stench, arses are bared, genitals pawed, naked chattel chained and bound, mouths leer, spit, dribble, suck, vomit, groan, scream, cry, and grunt, fingers prod, point, probe, gouge, feet bleed, run with sores, and stink, bodies killed in ever more inventive ways: face-first in a shit-house, brained, bludgeoned, stabbed with arrow, dagger, and spear, beheaded, impaled, crushed, disemboweled, and hanged in legions.
Director Aleksei German has gone medieval on the Strugatskii brothers and their famous 1964 novel, Hard to Be a God. His film—one of the most anticipated from Russia in recent years—is an exquisite torment on many levels. The torment reigns on both sides of the lens. The actors surely were knee-deep in Hell at times here. The shooting took so long, from 2000 to 2006, that the post-production period outlived some of the actors, German himself dying as the final sound work on the film was being completed (Lebedev 2013). A private showing of rushes in 2008 elicited early excitement amongst critics, Dmitrii Bykov finding reminders of Hieronymous Bosch here (Anon. 2008). Suffice it to say, viewers must steel themselves for almost three hours of The Garden of Earthly Delights, and be grateful that it is shot in black and white. German had designs on filming this novel as early as 1968, and it is worth seeing how far German had to come to render what he has from it, when he finally had the chance.
In Arkadii and Boris Strugatskii’s novel, first published in Soviet Russia in 1964, a future Earth, having transcended its earlier barbaric history, sends observers [nabliudateli] as part of an experiment to watch the progress of development on a distant planet, which is still mired in a Medieval period not unlike Earth’s own pre-Renaissance, pre-Enlightenment state eight hundred years previously. These observers, notably Don Rumata, an assumed identity for the earthman Anton, travel between the Kingdom of Arkanar and the Duchy of Irukan, watching for signs of progress amidst the cruelty and brutality of the local population, and yet forbidden from intervening with any force or violence. Under the vicious rule of Don Reba, the Arkanar king’s Minister of Security, however, any shoots of enlightened thinking, including reading, book-publishing, and art, are being systematically stamped out and their creators executed by his army of grey thugs. They also murder the king and his heir, and will themselves ultimately find annihilation at the hands of Reba’s select Holy Order of fanatical monks, as his paranoia takes over. Along the way, Rumata begins to resist the dictates of the prime directive, seeking to protect progressive shoots, wherever they may appear, and in particular the Irukan physician and learned man, Budakh, who has been imprisoned by Reba. Rumata’s predicament is further complicated by the arrival in his life of a love-interest, Kira, whom he will also eventually fight to protect. In the end, he manages to save Budakh, although Kira is killed by Reba’s men, the pain of that loss finally forcing Rumata to break his oath and join the bloody popular rebellion. This was a rather straightforward tale about the march of Progress, the iniquities of tyranny, and the inevitability of popular revolt against forces of ignorance both political and religious.
For a novel from the USSR, the expedient analogies are unsurprising, and not only for political reasons but for recent historical reasons as well. Sparse but explicit references to Hitler, Ernst Röhm, the Night of the Long Knives, place Arkanar in its “proper” setting. Indeed, the skeleton of a fascist soldier from Earth’s past appears in the prologue and epilogue as a marker of a low-point in Earth’s past human development, although it does not signal a heavy-handed use of the fascist analogy by the Strugatskiis. More prominent are the twin themes of the perils of blind religious faith and the promise of peasant rebellion against a tyrannical state. The novel also evokes perhaps less welcome analogies with Russia’s past, namely Ivan the Terrible and the Oprichnina, particularly in the scenes of slaughter in the city square by Reba’s cloaked agents. Analogies with the 1930s were enough of a possibility for the Soviet authorities that the Strugatskiis agreed to change the original name of the antagonist, Rebia, to Reba, so as to avoid any difficulties from the “overly simple anagram” of Beria (Strugatsky 2014: 245). The Soviet authorities at the time found enough palatable and accessible in this novel, however, to allow it to be published. A commentator at the time acknowledged the “enduring popularity” of the brothers’ work, and praised the figure of Rumata who “passes through the most difficult moral test, a test that requires this individual to mobilize all his spiritual [dushevnye] forces.” It was, he added, an especially hard test when the person in question comes from a rational, progressive world and is forced to face the ignorance and benightedness of a backward world (Revich 196: 421, 422).
This clear narrative drive is largely preserved in the first film adaptation of the novel in 1989, towards the end of glasnost’. Peter Fleischmann (Hunting Scenes from Bavaria) directed a Soviet-German production, which the Strugatskiis, apparently wanting German to direct, largely disowned. It turned out to be an unhappy marriage between Highlander (1986) and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979), with a G-rated smattering of Caligula (1979). Even a cameo by the famous director Werner Herzog was unable to spice things up. Ironically, Fleischmann preserved in his film at least part of the original inspiration behind the Strugatskys’ novel.
In 1962, Arkady had written to his brother with an idea for a swashbuckling cavalier romp, a Soviet Three Musketeers, “only with medieval piss and filth—how women smell there, how the wine is full of dead flies” (Strugatsky 2014: 235). The film’s message was largely unobjectionable at the time, preserving the moral conundrum of the book while replacing the downbeat conclusion of the novel with a happier ending for the movie-going public. In the novel, a consort of the king and Reba attempts to seduce Rumata, but her wiles fail. They succeed in the film. The drunken Rumata’s rape of Kira, implied in the novel, does not take place in the film, as Rumata (Edward Zentara) comes to his senses in time. The young prince who dies in the palace coup in the novel is saved in the film. As befitting this optimistic phase of the science-fiction genre in the 1980s, the film constantly pans across the promising, open vistas of Arkanar’s terrain and looks upwards to the stars (most directly when Rumata shows Kira his home planet with a promise to take her there), rather than directing its gaze inwards to the poverty and hopelessness of Arkanar as German will.
The action shifts periodically back to a space-ship of observers in orbit around the planet, who are watching the inhabitants’ and Rumata’s every move, and begin to be caught up in their own moral dilemma about their status as passive observers of carnage. At one point, they spontaneously break out in cheers when they see the peasants rising up against the tyrant. Rumata finally turns his back on the Experiment and takes matters violently into his own hands to save those he loves. That he uses first a helicopter and then a “phaser” from his own time to do so fits with the tenor of this film and seems faintly unfair. The film adds a twist to the tale that is absent from the novel. An overseer from Earth informs the crew of the ship that they, rather than the people of Arkanar, had been the subject of the Experiment all along. Could the reason, dispassion, and humanity of these observers, the product of centuries of progress, withstand the harmful influence of this primitive, base society? They could not, and the observers slowly begin to display not only aggression, but other emotions, as well such as sadness, jealousy, and perhaps even lust. The film implies perhaps that a dispassionate, rational, progressive society comes at a certain cost in individual humanity. In the end, having failed the experiment, the observers from the space-ship come down to the planet, reclaim Rumata, and presumably abandon the inhabitants to their own savagery. Credits roll to a dreadfully schmaltzy ballad by Grant Stevens. Where the novel was born of a complex political and cultural context deeply shaped, although not exclusively so, by the specifics of Soviet Russia in the 1960s, the 1989 film was the product of market forces, the dictates of a popular film genre, the demographic of the likely audience, and a late-glasnost’ attempt to bridge Soviet cinema and Hollywood.
In his final film before his death in February 2013, German has stripped the novel of its copious narrative exposition, its didacticism, its leitmotif of hope and redemption. His film has as much in common with Fleischmann’s as Andrei Rublev (1966) has with The Name of the Rose (1986). The Strugatskiis’ original narrative arc is largely intact, although traced only in episodic form here. Rumata (Leonid Iarmol’nik) still stumbles through Arkanar, mute witness to its grinding poverty, its suffocating brutality, and incipient popular rebellion, pits wits against Reba (Aleksandr Chutko), battles the one-eyed mercenary Arata (Valentin Golubenko), loses battle-companions like Baron Pampa (Iurii Tsurilo), and rescues the scholar Budakh (Evgenii Gerchakov). German, though, envisions a crushingly bleak world in his film. His gaze is naked and unflinching, his language coarse and jagged, offering the audience no pedestrian clichés or redemptive conclusions for relief. Science fiction author Stanislaw Lem wrote that “what the science-fiction work presents belongs to one time (most often the future), whereas how it tells its story belongs to another time, the present,” adding that a writer’s imagination could never completely transcend the “here and now” (HYes 2014). His insight is generally apt, until it is not. German’s present is hard to divine in this picture, perhaps because he so coveted this film project and took so long to make it, that the present—in terms of discrete formative moments or contexts—has been displaced by a much longer view of human existence. There are no easy allegories with past or present regimes in German’s film. There is no uplifting, personally redemptive love interest, no tenderness. This is a bold film without compromises.
It is viscerally visual, thriving on evoking gut reactions in its audience (discomfort and outright disgust, but also a kind of wearied fascination). Shot in excruciating close-up, each frame is so dense with information that inanimate and animate objects alike seem constantly to vie for the viewer’s attention (the reproduced images here are uncropped frames). The composition of each shot must have been a meticulous labor of love. It is a movie of the senses, and this is where the movie truly convinces. The unusually tight camera work lends a sense of claustrophobia to every scene, the action often set in primitive, crammed rooms, or in boggy streets curtained by torrential rain. Characters crowd into the frame, sometimes blocking the shot, often peering knowingly directly into the camera lens, even addressing it with a confidential aside, so that the actors often seem to be watching us, the viewers. The plot is at times difficult to follow, but the action is almost tangible.
The characters constantly sniff themselves and each other, and everything around them, as if, like dogs, they can better know their place in this world from the unique stench of each. Interactions among the characters are so brute and callous throughout, that we are permitted to develop no feelings of tenderness or sympathy for any of them. No heroic or noble instincts win out here. The sword-fighting is without finesse or romance. Heavy metal swords are waved around and swung, clumsily clubbing and scything. Overwhelming numbers will always ultimately carry the day in battle. The scenes in the Royal Court, where Rumata intrigues against and with his nemesis Reba, are devoid of regal splendor or opulence, but are as packed with filth, stench, depravity, and cruelty as any other scene in the film. In these scenes, some of the characters have a Fellini-esque grotesqueness and bawdiness to them. A gallows humor accompanies Rumata. When he comes across evidence of a still, he observes that someone in this god-forsaken place has managed to invent the planet’s first device to synthesize alcohol. “A real Leonardo…Da Vinci!” his servant cries. Reba “praises” Rumata’s reputation as the land’s best swordsman with so many duels to his name, but wonders why there are only 372 torn-off ears instead of dead bodies. Rumata quips: “But ears really hurt!” After hearing a lurid description of what a particularly infernal execution device does to a human body, Rumata runs his hands through the blood and guts on the device, and with a rictus grin on his face, says contemptuously: “What a joy! What a pleasure for everyone!” The humor here offers little respite.
Wherever battle is bloodily joined—whether between peasant rebels and soldiers or between grey monks and black monks is largely immaterial - depravity and cruelty are the main characters. When people die—and most characters, major and minor, ultimately die in this film—they die violently and pointlessly, often on a whim. Nor is there grace even in death, their dead bodies often not safe from inventive defilements. When one of Rumata’s noble comrades, Baron Pampa, meets his demise, the film’s narrator tells us, it is not at the behest of the Great Royal Court, or in a ceremonial execution in the square, but “pierced by a dozen arrows and thrown on a pile of garbage.” For the lesser mortals of Arkanar and Irukan, however, torture is the order of the day.
A strange wooden framework yokes dozens of captured peasant rebels together as they are whipped along by monks; a circular gibbet is limned against a burning city-square; a wooden phallic impaling rack shows the bloody horror it had recently visited on its victim. The backdrop here is a ghastly chorus of women’s screams and moans. It is an accretion of such scenes that will eventually move Rumata to action in German’s film. Rumata, the narrator informs us, decides that Don Reba must be killed, and that no thought should be given to the consequences of such an action. “God decided to start killing,” mumbles Rumata, and for a moment, dressed in leather and a horned cowl, he carries the threat of an avenging demon, bloodily goring the mercenary, Arata, to death. He then suddenly decides that he is not destined to kill everyone after all. Rumata himself seems unsure what he is avenging here in Arkanar exactly.
German’s cinematic aesthetic may well be La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc and the Seventh Seal, but his literary aesthetic is more Blood Meridian. Some background plot is sketched in occasionally by the anonymous narrator, but only in the broadest strokes. The scenes are episodic and only barely linked with each other. The dialogue is often fragmentary and indistinct. Individuals constantly cut each other off mid-sentence, mumble their lines through mouths stuffed with meat or lips dribbling wine. Comments are often heard off-camera or in the background, many of them making little sense (“Fish like milk” says one character repeatedly in one scene). The language is vernacular, and there is no place here for the extended declamatory expositions that advance the narrative in the novel and the earlier film. German refuses to spoon-feed his viewers easy philosophical bromides about man’s destiny, preferring instead a more obtuse philosophizing. At one point, Reba asks Rumata why he is so interested in bookworms like Budakh that are “useless and harmful to any state.” Rumata’s response is wonderfully cryptic: “Bookworms? Understand, that although I’m talking to you doesn’t mean we’re having a conversation.” That’s the only answer Reba will get. In the novel, much philosophical baggage is unpacked in a conversation between Rumata and the recently liberated Budakh about the state of humanity. The relaxed exchange takes place over dinner served by Kira: Rumata asks the physician what he would ask from God, in order to improve mankind’s lot. Budakh says he would ask God to give people bread, meat, wine, shelter, and clothing, to which Rumata responds that the strong would just rob the weak of all God gave them. Budakh then says he would ask God to stop people stealing from each other, but Rumata says this would make people lazy as they would not have to make any effort in life. Finally, Budakh says he would ask God to make people love work and knowledge, so that these would have prime place in their existence. Rumata says that this would mean wiping out all of mankind’s history and beginning again, an idea which Budakh embraces, but then adds that perhaps God should just let mankind go its own way. This conversation features in the 1989 film, although over a cosy camp fire. In German’s hands, this philosophical exchange is exquisitely profane. It takes place in a muddy street, as an unwell Budakh painfully attempts to urinate against a post.
All the while, as Budakh’s concentration is elsewhere, Rumata pesters Budakh with the question of what he would do if he were God. He would at least be able to piss freely, responds Budakh. Eventually, Budakh responds: “I would say, ‘Creator’,” only to be interrupted by Rumata: “Why are you pissing on my boots?” Finally, the scholar gives his answer: “I’d say… ‘Creator. Give people everything that keeps them apart.’” Rumata says that that would not help because the strong would take everything from the weak. Then Budakh says, “Punish the cruel, so that the strong stop being cruel.” Rumata says the stronger ones among the weak will eventually take their place, and calls Budakh an idiot. Finally, Budakh says with real passion: “Creator, if you exist, blow us away, like dust or puss, or leave us to rot as we are. Destroy all of us.” German uses this to signal Rumata’s decision finally to take action. Rumata tells Budakh he could not include the “sick and the children” in such an annihilation, because “my heart is full of pity.” The epiphany is not all that convincing, as Rumata has seemed woefully short on pity and compassion in the story so far. He has been casually brutal throughout. He threatens, manhandles, flogs, slaps, and beats those around him, rubbing their faces with mud or excrement to stress his superiority. He is feared. He seems filled with disgust and contempt for the primitive locals and the filth and depravity in which they wallow. He does engage in acts of rough justice and grace, freeing a chained man from a well, stopping a boy from desecrating dead bodies, and the like, but they are not intended to offer much more than a quick breather from the torment. While Rumata does not seem to revel in his mythic reputation among the locals as a God, he clearly accepts his status. It is “no small thing,” he tells Arata, to “live on in song.” For most of the film, he is prohibited from killing, however, and when he finally does seize this power, he makes little extended use of it for good or evil. He is more Loki than Odin.
If Rumata’s crisis of conscience is not totally convincing, and his turn towards action incomplete, then what are we left with at the end of German’s film? Before Rumata kills the soldier Arata, who has pretensions to replace Reba’s tyranny with a more humane regime, Rumata tells him that any new regime will inevitably be followed by “new slaves, new gibbets, new gold, new blacks. Everything will start again,” and that “you’d allow it, like everyone else has and always will….for thousands of years.” This is the closest German comes to a philosophical resolution in this film. His bleak depiction of this benighted realm of ignorance is not intended as a cinematographic convention to make the coming dawn of enlightenment or progress appear all the brighter. There will be no dawn here, nor any hope of one. Nor is Rumata’s advice meant only for the locals. He repeats it for a fellow observer: “wherever the grays triumph, the blacks will eventually always come. Remember, there’s no other way. Now go.” Violent intervention, even by a God who is convinced he is on the “right” side, can only add to the sum total of violence in human society. “It’s hard to be a God,” he adds, a final warning against the human conceit that it is possible to be the master of one’s own destiny, or anyone else’s for that matter. In a 1975 science fiction tale, the protagonist seeks the answer to the ultimate question: “Why are we created only to suffer and die?” receiving the only possible rational answer: “Why not?” (Trout 1975). Rumata—and German—would surely have appreciated both the question and the answer.
Frederick C. Corney
The College of William & Mary
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Anon. 2008. “Posle pervogo prosmotra,” Seans. Blog. 9 March.
Hynes, Eric. 2014. “To Boldly Go Where No Comrade Has…..Strange Lands Series Celebrates Soviet-Era Sci-Fi Films,” The New York Times, 20 August.
Lebedev, Viktor. 2013. “Na miuzikle ne zarabotaesh’ stol’ko, skol;ko na kontsertakh ‘Poiushchikh trusov’,” Dialog. Interv’iu agentstvo, 9 February.
Revich, Vsevolod. 1966. “Tragediia i skazka,” in Arkadii Strugatskii, Boris Strugatskii, Trudno byt’ bogom. Ponedel’nik nachinaetsia v subbotu (Moscow: Molodaia Gvardiia).
Strugatsky, Boris. 2014. “Afterword,” in Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Hard to be a God (Chicago: Chicago Review Press)
Trout, Kilgore. 1975. Venus on the Half-Shell (New York: Dell).
Hard to be a God, Russia, 2013
Black and white, 177 minutes
Director: Aleksei German
Cast: Leonid Iarmol'nik, Dmitrii Vladimirov, Iurii Tsurilo, Natal'ia Moteva, Aleksandr Chutko, Evgenii Gerchakov
Screenplay: Svetlana Karmalita and Aleksei German from a novel by Boris and Arkadii Strugatskii
Cinematography: Vladimir Il'in and Iurii Klimenko
Editing: Irina Gorokhovskaia, Mariia Amosova
Production Design: Sergei Kokovkin, Georgii Kropachev, Elena Zhukova
Costume: Ekaterina Shapkaits
Music: Viktor Lebedev
Sound: Nikolai Astakhov
Producers: Viktor Izvekov, Rushan Nasibulin
Production companies: Studio "Sever" and “Rossiia 1" Telekanal
Aleksei German: Hard to Be a God (Trudno byt’ bogom, 2013)
reviewed by Frederick C. Corney© 2014