Paul Duane on the late Alexei German’s last, and maybe most singular, film, which reaches British screens this week.
Some exceptional films present you with a world that’s so fully imagined, so crammed with life, so teeming with ideas that you genuinely feel your life experience has been expanded by watching them. To achieve that, a film has to convince you not only of the reality of the characters and the story, but in the existence of every tiny crevice, every corner of what’s depicted on screen. You have to feel that if the camera turned 180˚you’d see, not a bored camera assistant scratching his arse, but MORE of the world of the film. It’s the most powerful illusion cinema can provide.
This sort of world-building doesn’t happen often – off the top of my head, I can think of Fanny & Alexander, The Turin Horse, Mad Max/Road Warrior/Fury Road, The Third Man… these films live in fully imagined universes where everything, down to every last shirt button on every bit part player, is real. Weird, for sure, but real.
Standing alongside them is the jaw-dropping, immersive, head-scratching Hard To Be A God, by Alexei German, a film that seems intensely commited to pulling its audience bodily into one of the most appalling worlds any filmmaker has yet created. It’s not for everybody – hell, there were times, watching it, when I wondered if it’s for anybody at all – but its vision of mankind’s nature as one of unbroken, unbreakable cruelty is indelible.
The conviction this world inspires is driven by a singular directorial style. German’s is the most audacious & astonishing use of camera & actors to come along since Bela Tarr. The blocking is so complicated that it feels like utter chaos, but clearly is planned with maniacal clarity. His camera moves restlessly through corridors, among groups of people, with the actors (who very quickly begin to seem like they’re not acting at all) entering frame from the oddest positions, continually breaking the fourth wall, staring right down the lens at us, and strange objects – dead animals, cages, at one point a horse’s penis – hoving into view from all sides, including, unsettlingly, the top of the frame.
“Documentary style” doesn’t at all sum it up. The only film I can think of that has a similarly restless, stormy feel is Welles’ Chimes At Midnight, but here we are firmly in the land of nightmare, with none of the rationality that still exists in Falstaff’s story.
The film’s opening image is of a window, framed in which we see a pair of anonymous bare buttocks. Then a grinning, toothless simpleton starts poking at them with a spear. This is the world of Bruegel the Elder, of Bosch, of Goya’s Disasters of War, and it’s where we’re going to spend the next three hours. And it’s foggy and raining. All the time, raining.
Next we meet two more grinning simpletons who are preparing to throw a man into a filthy latrine headfirst, as otherwise there’s not enough shit in there to drown him. The man is a ‘wiseguy’ or a ‘bookworm’, an intellectual in Arkanar, a world that’s decided to do without learning. A world that is like Earth eight hundred years ago, as the opening narration tells us, but where no Renaissance took place to save the inhabitants from their own brutality. Here, the strong will torture the weak, and that’s the way it’s going to be, forever.
Observing this, because that’s all he’s allowed to do, is Don Rumata, an Earth scientist who’s been living on Arkanar for thirty years, having assumed the identity of a nobleman who is – some say – descended from a god. But many of his subjects don’t seem to believe it. Suspicions cluster round him. They ask, why does Rumata, renowned as the greatest swordsman in Arkanar, avoid killing at all costs, preferring to slice off his victims’ ears? Why is he so strong and healthy in comparison to everyone that surrounds him? What’s his ironic grin all about?
It’s useful to think of Hard To Be A God as a sort of superhero movie. Don Rumata can do things nobody else on the planet is able to do, but he’s forbidden to do most of them. He’s got a Prime Directive; he can’t kill anyone or interfere in the planet’s development. He’s Arkanar’s equivalent of Superman, except, prevented from improving their situation, he instead tries to convince himself that any intervention would only make things worse. Until, that is, he realises just how bad things are.
Rumata’s day starts with him awakening on the floor under his banqueting table. He grumbles good-naturedly at his servants, finds his boots, then his clarinet and starts to play some jazz, while the servants stuff rags in their ears so they don’t have to listen. This is the same music that will end the film, drifting off across an empty landscape, causing a dim pain to those who hear it. The film doesn’t tell you why, but it hints at the idea that the only thing that can keep Rumata sane in this world is a bit of music, and that this is a world where music seems inappropriate, maybe even evil, to everyone else.
The rest of the story is pretty straightforward, though the director makes it as difficult as he can for the audience. I’m not a fan of exposition, but German makes you crave it the way a man crawling through a desert longs for an oasis. It’s probably bad form to suggest that anyone seeing this film should read the Wikipedia summary of the source novel first, but believe me, you will have a great advantage over the rest of the audience, and I guarantee you that you needn’t worry about spoilers. This is not that kind of film.
(Aside: if a film, aside from a genre-type film which is plot-dependent like, say, Psycho or The Gallows, or a twisty-turny film that’s based entirely on one Big Thing like The Crying Game, can be ‘spoiled’ for you by knowing in advance how the storyline works, then maybe the problem is in the way you watch films? It could be that the plot’s not always the most important part of a film, let’s just say.)
What we have here is a straightforward quest narrative – Don Rumata goes looking for a missing doctor, Bukash, who has been imprisoned by Don Reba, the leader of Arkanar, and is probably in the dungeons – the Tower of Joy – where bookworms are tortured before execution. In the book, Rumata is sent by his superiors to find the Doc, but in the film, the Doc is the only person left that Rumata can have a decent conversation with. The Greys, a sort of puritan army, are pillaging the land, and the Blacks, an order of monks, follow in their wake, devising awful tortures for those of little faith. Rumata sees the unthinkable horror of it all and comes to the conclusion that he has to disobey his orders. He has to kill Reba, even though – as he well knows – nothing will change.
The peasants have a leader – Arata the Hunchback – who wants to depose Reba using Rumata as a figurehead, leading a rebellion of the weak against the strong. But Rumata knows that as soon as the weak replace the strong, they’ll just pound some other weaklings, the way they always have. Strike down the strong, and the strongest of the weak will take their place. Mankind’s destiny is to live in hell – either to reign over it or to be subjected to it.
Rumata’s lucky, he can escape, return home to civilisation. But will he do so, or will he attempt to make what Peter Cook once referred to as ‘a futile gesture’, knowing that if he does, he’ll never be able to return to Earth?
The fictional Don Rumata is a product of mid-period Communism, created by the Strugatsky brothers (whose work also inspired Tarkvosky’s Stalker), and filtered through the mind of a director whose work was repeatedly suppressed by the regime he laboured under. There’s a great profile of German here which rightly says, “how many other geniuses have managed to displease the Soviet censors, the post-Soviet commercial system, and the connoisseurs of Cannes?”
Alexei German only made six films across six decades. Two of them were suppressed by the regime for decades. One, Khrustalyov! My Car!, took a decade to make and was so poorly received at Cannes that it practically disappeared (it’s a masterpiece, of course). Outside of Russia, where his work – particularly the gentle, deceptively nostalgic My Friend, Ivan Lapshin – is revered, German is practically unknown, his films inaccessible & forgotten.
His final work, Hard To Be A God, took six years to film, six years to edit, and German died before the end of post-production. His is, to say the least, a very Russian career in its grim, single-minded way. And the director summed himself up thus: “I regard myself as an unrealized, and, on the whole, a failed, unhappy man.” The films bear this out. If you’re looking for a Hobbesian view of human life, you’ll find it here, if you can take it.
I’ve seen it twice, and will soon see it a third time. It’s inexhaustible, this world of shit, and somehow, in a twisted way, it’s exhilarating, even life-affirming. Watching it, you gain a physical understanding of how far we’ve travelled from barbarism, that even this most imperfect and frustrating and awful world that we’ve got is hard-won, and that our gains are precarious. A new Dark Age is always just around the corner, unless we continually battle against our own unquenchable ignorance.