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The Russian sci-fi movie Hard to be a God is the last movie to be made from Russian director Aleksei German, taking six years to film. German died during the five years of post-production, leaving his screenwriter wife and director son to complete the movie. Based on a novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Hard to be a God is a three hour grind of despair.
On a planet similar to Earth, the people are still in their Medieval period. A group of scientists from Earth have been sent to monitor the planet and kickstart the renaissance. But the capital city of Arkanar has regressed into violence and turmoil with intellectuals being purged. One of the scientists (Leonid Yarmolnik) assumes the identity of a nobleman, Don Rumata. He attempts to save intellectuals while not getting involved in the society’s politics; yet Rumata cannot help but be sucked into this backwards world.
Running at three hours long, Hard to be a God is best described as a mood piece; a mood of pain, death and misery. It is a movie that can wear anyone down with its depiction of Medieval society and violence: men, women and children are hanged and even in death they are humiliated, people drown in latrines and life is a hard struggle without any mechanical tools. It is a hard world of poverty, dirt and grime, a planet and society of so much violence and hardship that it makes Westeros look like a more attractive prospect.
Where Hard to be a God excels is on its technical merit. German greatly realizes the Medieval World, creating a feel that is very authentic despite it being a fictional world. The movie was set in a gruelling autumn where the land and towns suffer quick bursts of heavy rain. All the paths are just quagmires of mud that is so thick that it people have to wade through rather than walk. It did not matter if a person was a child or heavily pregnant, there was no let up, everyone had to endure the same difficult environment regardless of their conditions. The muddy streets mixed with the black-and-white cinematography makes Hard to be a God look similar to Akira Kurosawa’s early epics like Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood, being mud covered environments. The environments were tight, whether it was within Rumata’s castle or the streets of the city and surrounding villages. The costumes were fantastic – whether it was Rumata’s armor or the rags that they were wearing and there are great little details like many of the characters having broken, rotting or missing teeth, being a lot more realistic than how people look in Western Medieval set fiction.
The cinematography by Vladimir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko was of the highest order. The movie was shot black-and-white and most of the scenes were shot in one long continuous take: it basically looked like a cross between Schindler’s List and Birdman. The two cinematographers use the crammed interiors of the castle to their fullest, making them out to be bursting with people and filled with smoke and incense. There are few cuts within scenes with most of the action looking like a continuous shot, moving to different actions within a location or in center of the city. During the long takes objects and people fall into the foreground: in lesser hands this would have looked amateurish, but for Hard to be a God, it added to a sense of authenticity, giving the movie a fly-on-the-wall look despite its black-and-white cinematography. There are some truly striking images of all the horrors, such the hanging bodies, and not just people and a load of intellectuals who are tied up being marched to their deaths. But there are moments when people look and act towards the camera which is distracting; sometimes it’s because it was a point-of-view, but other times it was just breaking the fourth wall just for the sake of it.
Where Hard to be a God falters is with its story: it is a meandering affair with no real focus. It is just a collection of events as Rumata travels the capital and the surrounding area, seeing all the death and pogroms and grinding poverty, hearing of all atrocities happening across the land and being surrounded in crowded rooms in his castle. Because of this lack of focus, its length, slow burning pace and its harsh tone and visuals, Hard to be a God is more an endurance test than a movie, which is massively smart. It is a huge shame because visually, the movie is a masterpiece, but the lack of story will turn audiences off. The set-up was great tapestry, but it was underutilized.
The original novel was written by the Strugatsky brothers who have a reputation for being highly regarded science fiction writers in their homeland. The novel was published in 1964 and the movie set out to be a criticism of religious fundamentalism and their attack on science, the arts and free thought and we can see parallels with situations in say the Bible Belt (minus all the death). Russia also had harsh experiences in the recent history up to 1964 which must have been an influence on the text, like the pogroms that forced the Jewish population to flee the nation, Stalin’s purges creating a climate of fear and the Nazi occupation rounded up intellectuals to ensure that they could not lead any resistance.
Hard to be a God is a movie that is hard to get into. Its technical prowess cannot be denied and the ideas the movie tries to express and its setting are perfectly fantastic, but its lack of narrative is too big an issue to ignore.