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'Hard to Be a God' Is Director Aleksei German's Nihilistic Swansong

Words can't do justice to the repugnant milieu of German's adaptation of the Soviet sci-fi classic Hard to Be a God. It's filled with disease, blood, shit, and endless fighting, serving as a dark reflection of humanity's base proclivities.

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"This is not Earth. It's another planet." So begins Aleksei German's Hard to Be a God, the late Russian filmmaker's adaptation of a Soviet sci-fi novel published in 1964. Said planet is named Arkanar and has yet to advance beyond its own dark ages, making this a primitive foray into the realm of speculative fiction despite being set 800 years in the future. Stationed on the earthlike sphere is an earthling named Don Rumata, who was sent (along with several others) as a secret emissary. He's something of a cross between Cassandra, the tragic figure from Greek mythology who was gifted/cursed with the power of prophecies that no one would ever believe, and Luke Wilson's character in Idiocracy, an intergalactic anthropologist incapable of directly intervening in the world's affairs.


Words scarcely do justice to this repugnant milieu. Death and disease are the norm. Blood, pus, gore, shit, and all manner of other bodily fluids are strewn across almost every scene. Naked bodies abound, with German taking every opportunity to emphasize the most grotesque aspects of the human form. With few exceptions, Rumata's experiences don't inspire much sympathy from the miserable peasants he's tasked with passively observing. Some of the worst are divided into two warring factions: the Blacks and the Grays, whose differences are ultimately moot. Both are vying for power, and neither is defined by their scruples.

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The artistic and intelligent are being systematically purged from the impoverished villages where Hard to Be a God takes place, furthering the descent into filth and barbarism. Arkanar isn't as retrograde as it is because its people simply haven't reached their own Enlightenment yet, but rather because any efforts to bring about progress have been violently halted. Rumata (whom the locals believe to be the bastard son of a pagan god) is the deity alluded to in the title. His difficulty comes from his inability to make this purgatorial locale less of a shithole. "Maybe the abyss belched you out," one man says to Rumata. "Maybe you're God's son." Even holiness is expressed via bodily function here.

His one active role is to protect the select few who are trying to make Arkanar a better place, and it isn't much of a spoiler to say that he isn't very successful. Few bat an eye at the worsening conditions. For them, this is business as usual. Their present combines all the worst qualities of the past and none of the advantages of the future.

That such an ostensibly nihilistic worldview manages to captivate is owed largely to elegant, flowing cinematography that's far more graceful than Arkanar deserves. Vladimir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenkofollow's camera follows Rumata so closely that we almost see things from his perspective, with a number of passersby looking directly at us and breaking the fourth wall. It's an uncomfortably immersive experience that gives new meaning to the phrase "Nice place to visit, wouldn't want to live there."

German died before the movie was finished, and the work his wife and son put into completing it on his behalf makes for a hell of a swansong. The shoot is said to have taken as long as six years, and the result is a three-hour, black-and-white opus of despair with plenty of gallows but not much humor. There's no light at the end of Arkanar's tunnel, but there is opportunity to reflect on the base impulses that keep societies entrenched in backwards thinking. For the viewer, anyway—no one there seems particularly inclined to do more than eat, drink, and fight. This may not be Earth, but it isn't exactly alien.

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