If you have the stomach for it, sitting through the three-hour, black-and-white Russian film, Hard to Be a God, may rank as one of your most unforgettable cinematic experiences. The last picture made by Aleksei German, considered the greatest Russian filmmaker after Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris, Stalker, Nostalgia), Hard To Be A God is a science-fiction movie caked in the eternal mud of a medieval epic.
German died in 2013 at the age of 74, having completed the movie after dreaming about it and working on it for his entire career. A one-of-a-kind film, it combines a daunting, unrelenting, uncompromising and anti-commercial personal vision with a thoroughly disgusting – but weirdly, rather awe-inspiring – aesthetic built on Muck (yes, with a capital M).
German deluges his sets with every conceivable bodily fluid. Piss, shit, vomit, blood, spit and snot (especially snot) are expelled into a ground consisting of ankle-deep mud, constantly watered by intermittent squalls of saturating rain. This mud runs like a virus through the alleyways and roads of a village perpetually locked in the Dark Ages, where bookworms and artists are tortured and lynched, women are treated like cattle, children are enslaved and nearly everyone seems to be sporting some kind of deformity or a leaking, open wound. The funny thing is, this village exists on a distant planet called Arkanar, where scientists from Earth have arrived to attempt to bring the inhabitants forward into the dawn of Enlightenment.
At least, that’s what the articles I’ve read about the movie tell me. Trying to figure this out simply by watching the film is nearly impossible. An off-screen narrator introduces us to Arkanar and to the main character, Don Rumata, an earthling masquerading as the son of a god, who appears to have given up on his mission to civilize the planet. Instead, he roams the village as a kind of tour guide, pitting his fawning acolytes against his skeptical adversaries, attempting to (I think) stop an impending massacre. Hard to Be a God is nearly impenetrable as a work of storytelling, but as the realization of a director’s imagined world, it is a masterpiece.
German’s mise en scène is precise and unwavering, not only clotted with the grime, filth and grotesque behavior of its villagers, but also with a pervasive atmosphere of ignorance and paranoia. It is both a hyper-realistic depiction of medieval wretchedness and a scathing allegory of modern Russian history, beginning with the Stalinist genocide and continuing right up into Putin’s current backward slide into dictatorship. Russia, the director seems to be saying, is a forever, fetid swamp of anti-intellectual brutishness.
All of this is captured with a handheld camera that stays so close to the action you can almost smell the stink, the foreground of the frame crowded with strands of hair, streams of sputum, bits of viscera, and the occasional leering face looking directly into the lens as if the camera is another person, recording Rumata on his desultory journey.
There is no doubt this movie is a slog, requiring patience and a strong grip on your gag reflex, but it’s also a supremely powerful work of immersive art, perfectly realized. While watching, keep this quote from Aleksei German in your mind: “I was never taught, hassled, or had my nose rubbed in shit by any director. I’m a nonprofessional, and that forces me at every stage to invent cinema – my own, the kind of cinema that interests me. One that’s somehow different from everybody else’s.”
If you go: Northwest Film Forum will screen the movie today through Monday. Tickets and times are here.
This review first appeared on the author's blog, The Restless Critic. First published on Crosscut at 2:48 p.m. Feb. 20.