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The film that took 50 years

“Hard to be a God”, from the Russian director Aleksei German, was worth the wait 

Tom Graham | August 19th 2015

Half a century ago, the young Russian film director Aleksei German read a sci-fi novel called “Hard to Be a God”, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. He knew then that he would make it into a film—though not that it would take him 50 years. German was no dissident, but he was a wayward talent who never quite toed the Party line. Only one of his films, “Twenty Days Without War”, was directly released in the Soviet Union. Others were censored and shelved for years. Soviet cinema required heroes and antiheroes, but German offered neither: his protagonists were non-heroes, much too ambiguous for the censors.

His vision for “Hard to Be a God” was vast, hellish and utterly idiosyncratic, where rousing, patriotic films were more to the censors’ taste. So he waited until 2000, when he finally began shooting. He spent six years on the principal photography alone. But in February 2013, on the cusp of completion, German died, regarding himself, he told an interviewer in 2012, “as an unrealised, and, on the whole, failed, unhappy man.” The final touches were delivered by his wife and son, and the film took on a mythic quality.

“Hard to Be a God” takes place on Arkanar, a planet much like Earth but mired in the Middle Ages. Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) is an anthropologist and one of a group of scientists sent from Earth to observe Arkanar’s forthcoming enlightenment. Only it never arrives; the ruling lords destroy the universities and butcher the intellectuals. Their corpses rot along the roads, “like autumn leaves”. Tall, clad in plate armour and with furs spilling off his shoulders, Don inspires awe. He roams with impunity, protected by the natives’ belief that he is the descendant of a pagan god. It brings to mind an exchange from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, as two peasants watch Arthur pass by: “Must be a king.” “Why?” “He hasn’t got shit all over him.”

That is the setting, as far as we can tell from Don’s muttered monologues, without which we’d know nothing of his origins or the churning political landscape where the “Blacks” and “Greys” are at war. But the film is less interested in narrative coherence than plunging the viewer into the squalor of the Middle Ages. It is guttural, sensory cinema that immerses rather than explains—three hours of mud, blood and phlegm. In elaborate tracking shots the camera peers around corners, through windows, and weaves between lumps of rotting food; a carnival of grotesque figures lurch across its view and regularly break the “fourth wall”, performing directly for us. The textures are perhaps the crowning horror, so evocative you can almost touch them: the maggoty meat, sodden feet and slick, jet tar.

In the midst of this chaos, Don cuts an ironic figure. Early in the film he plays jazz on a makeshift clarinet, but his servants wince and plug their ears with wool. When he quotes Pasternak, finishing on the words “nocturnal darkness”, a passing peasant scoffs that that’s called evening. For us, Don is the only recognisable person in this regressive Boschian nightmare, a vision of the past that is also an alternate present. He is thoroughly out of place, which may have been how German felt, stifled in the Soviet Union, his life’s work limited to six films. German’s wilful independence gave his films their maverick brilliance, but at the cost of recognition in his lifetime. With “Hard to Be a God” he may finally be acknowledged as one of Russia’s great directors. The film was worth the wait.

Hard to be a God Out now in Britain

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