If your film started shooting 15 years ago and has only just felt the tender touch of a cinema screen, the problems that caused it to stay so long in development hell are probably going to bleed into the final product. That’s not the case with Hard To Be A God, Aleksey German’s long-time-coming science fiction parable; its problems go far deeper than that.
The premise is pure brilliance: a group of scientists set down on an alien planet, currently in the throes of its own dark ages, in order to observe their development and intermittently nudge them onto the right path in history. While on his noble quest of enlightening these beings from the scum to the sky, one of the scientists, Don Rumata, falls into somewhat of a rut during his stay in the city of Arkanar; he happily receives slaves, and has no qualms about accepting a place in this nascent society with the label of ‘God.’ But the reverence has not corrupted his heart; he ventures to rescue the intellectual Budakh from a rival clan, and in ensuring this unwitting genius’s existence, a moral civilisation in Arkanar may one day flourish. First and foremost, Hard To Be A God is a peerless masterclass in texture: we’re introduced to this world kicking and screaming, its familiar medieval architecture overflowing with feces-strewn peasants, happily brewing in a cesspit of their own design. In almost every frame, there’s something morbidly ripe and unpleasant front-and-centre to turn the stomach – in a disturbingly effective way, we’re drawn into this bleak and disgusting world, unable to breathe for fear of inhaling something toxic. The enlightenment clearly hasn’t reached this human-like race: largely a band of morons, they’re happy to chase their own tail, toil in senseless tasks and bask in self-appeasing rhetoric. But while the world of Hard To Be A God is dense, it’s never as cerebral as it likes to think it is; it may be a trite, circumstantial comparison, but the other Russian master of sombre sci-fi, Andrei Tarkovsky, made his films feel as if they consisted of fathomless layers; German’s opus, on the other hand, is one single, sticky surface of nastiness. For three bludgeoning hours.
But this colossal movie is far from one-dimensional. On the contrary, it’s bursting with character – yet there’s only so much quirky fourth-wall-breaking and guttural speechifying before the mind wanders, and begins to look for some actual meat on the bone. Hard To Be A God is a grandiose film of ideas, and if your disposition (and your stomach) are so inclined, it’ll be a rewarding film as well as a punishing one. Whether the bitter weariness by journey’s end translates as some kind of catharsis, through one thematically oblique scene to the next, it’s nearly always too difficult to see through the murk of this foreign planet. The film is German’s genius diligently at work, but presented only in spluttering stop-starts, largely muffled by its own weight. It frequently bends to near-breaking point, but to little purpose.
Hard To Be A God is about grand themes, but buckles under the weight of that grandness; German’s film, released posthumously, has been labelled a masterpiece by some. But its own inability to cut through the dredge of its otherwise unforgettable, skin-crawling atmosphere means that it’s little more than an exhausting curiosity to others.