I have only had the opportunity to see a few of Aleksei German’s films. But watching either Khrustalyov, My Car! or Hard to Be a God is like seeing 8 1/2 or 2001 or The Mirror for the first time. You know that what you are seeing is going to change the way you watch anything from here on out and there is nothing you can do about it.
Critics and film theorists talk about the thing that makes something a truly great film. This quality can be described as auteur presence (Bazin), or the work of termites (Farber), or a sort of sculpting in time (Tarkovsky). But all this theory really boils down to something quite simple: a great film reminds us that cinema is capable of doing something nothing else can. We leave one of the great films like Percy’s The Moviegoer, kind of off-kilter or imbalanced, only because we now have to factor into the world something we had not really considered before. This is the paradox of great cinema: it can somehow present as more real than the world it reflects, even though it exists in strips or hard drives.
I think Hard To Be A God may be a great film for that reason. At the very least, it lingers on the palette in the way simpler films do not. This 2012 essay in Film Comment is an excellent thumbnail sketch of German’s cinema (though also check out this Calvert Journal essay). He points out a few of the key features of German’s films, the following two of which are essential for understanding what is actually transpiring in Hard To Be A God:
The first regards how he swaps back and forth between characters:
“…the switching of primary and secondary characters, foreground and background, main action and subplot—in German’s films, these hierarchies are abolished once and for all and the revolutionary maxim ‘He who was nothing will become everything’ takes on new meaning. Trivial details are at the very core of German’s films, where nameless extras are sometimes more important than the films’ ostensible stars.”
The second has more to do with the overall effect of his films:
“The first thing German became notorious for, and which rankles people even today, is this scrapping of the character hierarchy deemed necessary to Soviet cinema and anti-Soviet cinema alike. You can’t call his protagonists antiheroes; rather, they’re non-heroes.”
These two things make watching German’s films confusing and exhausting. Though we keep returning to its central character, Hard To Be A God is only in orbit around this figure, the camera constantly turning away and around to look at everything else. This central character is Don Rumata, one of a group of anthropologists and historians that have been sent from Earth to a different planet in order to trigger its own Enlightenment. The details of their mandate are vague. But we gather that they are present to bear witness to the struggle of this planet out from the muck of their own Middle Age.
Unfortunately, this society has begun to turn on its own sparks of ingenuity, slaughtering its growing intellectual class. Don Rumata wades into this conflict, a kind of warrior poet so overwhelmed by these circumstances that he strays from his benign galactic calling. We traipse with Dom through acres of squelchy muck and feces and blood until lost in the complex critique of the Strugatsky novel adapted by the film.
The actual narrative of this conflict is obscure, present in snippets of erratic conversation and Don Rumata’s ongoing metrical reflections. And even these few vestiges of plot are buried beneath the profusion of crap and body fluid and mud and all the excreta of a civilization pre-germ theory. Its living spaces are cluttered with animal corpses, rusted tools and implements, piles of wood and bones. Its philosophers are drowned in septic pools. In its climatic sequences this sludge expands to fill the frame, faces covered in dripping pitch and agonized mutters cluttering the soundtrack. At great length, German observes these faces and limbs covered in aged filth, continually engaging all the senses. It is like Don Rumata has been sent to hell.
In order to make this lengthy visual exercise possible, German must abandon the way most other films work. Don Rumata and a few other characters are the only senses of narrative we can glean from German’s constantly moving camera, but even they are often cast to the edge of the frame or vanish completely as the profusion of bodies in each scene are bumped by the camera or capture our attention for a few frames as they rifle through filth.
This sense of dislocation and unease in Hard To Be A God really is the film. Like other examples of great cinema, it is able to enact something that could not be performed in a different material: a lengthy, visceral dread about our own fragility. Not our mortality, as this is too simple a cliché for German’s work. But our actual fragility, the ease with which our bodies could be dismantled, discarded, and abandoned in a heap of decaying matter. Don Rumata and the other anthropologists sent to the planet have discovered that our claims to progress and enlightenment may simply be accidents of history. We do not seem lost now, but we could be. We could be just a few planets over. We have no choice but to drift a bit shell-shocked, like Don Rumata, out of the last few frames of the film.