Science fiction cinema and medievalism have been unlikely spirit twins for decades. Almost every post-apocalypse since the original Planet of the Apes has hinged on a society gone back to feudal basics, filled with scattered, rusty remnants of a once-bright future that we badly screwed up… the precise details of our fatal mistake often long forgotten. Christian Bale vehicle Reign of Fire extended the link to the realm of myth, positing a race of dragons as the scourge that brought late capitalism to its knees, leaving us to scratch a living in a disused power station – a de facto castle for Bale’s paranoid, aspiring dragonslayer.
On significantly more poetic turf, Vincent Ward – a director seemingly obsessed with all things Dark Ages – tapped SF tropes in his 1988 monochrome gem The Navigator to bring a group of medieval questers into the modern world via an underground time warp, with the resulting culture clash kindling moments of quiet power (the film’s central idea was parodied five years later in hit French comedy Les Visiteurs). Memorably, Ward’s dual attraction to SF and our chain-mailed past also motivated one of genre film’s great, near misses – his version of Alien 3 – which came tantalisingly close to shifting the franchise to the radical locale of a wooden space station, where Luddite monks squabble over how to handle a technology-rich, evil-bringing and, worst of all, female intruder by the name of Ellen Ripley.
But no film fan’s giddiest vision of what Ward might have achieved had 20th Century Fox allowed him could be anything like as outré as Hard to Be a God – and that overdetermined aesthetic is what ultimately kills the film from within.
Celebrated Russian director Aleksi German – who died in 2013, leaving his wife and son to finish the film he’d started shooting as far back as 2000 – strands us on the planet Arkanar: a mud-swathed world stuck around 800 years behind Earth in its technological evolution. According to a cursory voiceover that purrs away in a velvety baritone, a group of scientists has been living on the planet for several years, conducting an anthropological field study under a vow of non-interference.
Unfortunately, when we first clap eyes on the nominal hero, Anton (Leonid Yarmolnik) – a senior member of the Earthling team – he is living in a pit of squalor masquerading as the height of luxury in the assumed, noble role of Don Rumata, victim of his own success amid an infiltration project that has led him to swallow his own cover story, much in the same way that Justin Bieber believes his own publicity. Despite the trappings of an opulent castle, Rumata is surrounded by a filth that oozes inescapably from the outdoors, as well as the heaped-up, rotten leftovers of daily decadence and a host of sycophantic acolytes who prove that the scientists’ policy of strict observation has gone monumentally to pot.
Over the course of the film, we drunkenly stagger after Rumata as he strives to forge alliances with neighbouring chieftains in efforts to resist self-styled militarian Colonel Kusis’ fascistic crackdown on purveyors of culture and thought – the very malaise that has kept Arkanar on the lower rungs of progress. It is a conflict that not merely ends bloodily, but egresses a great deal of blood during the beginning and middle, together with snot, shit, sputum and pretty much any other bodily fluid you may care to mention – all of which are inevitably stirred into the giant mudbath that is Arkanar on an average day: an environment that makes Donington Park on a rainy festival weekend look like a freshly manicured bowling green at the back of a Surrey old folks’ home.
Now, here’s the thing:
The only reason I have been able to convey that synopsis is because, since watching the film, I have read several descriptions of the narrative drawn from official press notes – each of which has plugged gaps that should really have been covered by the substance of German’s material. Fair play for dumping us in at the deep end and all that, but the film he spent half a century trying to bring to fruition (if you count its original development phase) militates so aggressively against comprehension that whole, 20-minute chunks could be excised and it would have little to no effect on the overall meaning.
While I would stop well short of saying that the defining characteristic of great art is that it should “make sense”, the film asks for three hours of our time, at the end of which many viewers could be forgiven for thinking that their intellectual nourishment had been nudged into the red. There is, to be clear, no sense of purpose to any aspect of the enterprise, save for its photography, design and makeup effects, which are stunning. Other than that, we’re all at sea in a film with just one, stumbling pace, and one dour tone.
It doesn’t matter whether Rumata is attempting to woo potential allies or confront lurking foes; everyone is always hawking phlegm up over each other, running their fingers through each other’s shit, picking insects off each other’s scalps or punching each other in the face. None of which is remotely as much fun as it might sound. There are no dramatic dynamics of any sort that distinguish various affiliations, and the performers behave so similarly that – with the exception of Yarmolnik, who throws his weight around in almost every shot – there are no standout characters to lock onto. It is even impossible to tell which of the faces on show were among the original team of scientific explorers: the film’s whole, narrative springboard is hopelessly lost.
Neither is it to the film’s advantage that the dialogue is comprised almost entirely of non-sequiturs, leading to a complete vacuum where cause and effect should be. What follows is not an exchange from Hard to Be a God, but a send-up that should give you a pretty good idea of the film’s stridently elliptical take on the art of conversation:
Character A: Butter is nicer than margarine.
Character B: I saw a pelican last Thursday.
Character A: Mud is solid consciousness.
Character B: Someone guzzle my piss.
Character A: Where is my broadsword?
Character B: The turtle is eating mice in my pants.
(Actually, that last line does appear in the film.)
The real tragedy is that it didn’t have to be this way. The novel that the film is based on, by Russian SF legends Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, is a wine-soaked adventure romp in the vein of Dumas – one that subjected chivalric fantasy to the same type of knowing deconstruction that readers (and viewers) are currently experiencing from the works of George RR Martin. In other words, the book is nothing like the obscurant’s paradise that the film has turned out to be. Famously, another Strugatsky book, Roadside Picnic, made a journey to celluloid as Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 masterpiece Stalker. It seems as though German was far less interested in engaging with the book in front of him than launching a suicide mission to out-Tarkovsky Tarkovsky – although he appears to have missed the point that Stalker is considerably more lucid than what he has managed to deliver with Hard to Be a God.
Perhaps the closest point of comparison for what German thought he was up to here is the 1969 eyeful Fellini Satyricon, of which Fellini once stated, “I am examining ancient Rome as if this were a documentary about the customs and habits of the Martians.” However, even in all its glorious excess and anarchy, his film still traces groups of identifiable characters through its procession of outrageous, gaudy vignettes (the same, by the way, can be said of Jodorowsky’s El Topo and The Holy Mountain). And when it comes to literary adaptations that wildly betray their source texts, only to arrive at far more poignant truths about them than straighter readings would have afforded, David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch is a far more successful venture than Hard to Be a God: one that acknowledges – even at the height of its bizarre imagery and narrative abstraction – that there’s an audience out there.
German’s film has been hailed as a masterpiece in the more academic quarters of film criticism (including, predictably, Sight & Sound), and in time will no doubt be used as a stick with which to beat pictures from Hollywood – as have so many arthouse causes célèbres of the past. But in terms of meaning, there is absolutely no difference between Hard to Be a God and any six-pack of generic, US action films that have been edited with lawnmowers to become little more than flurries of sequences with scant narrative linkage.
There was a great, and potentially powerful, tale to be told here about how a continuous onslaught of barbarity can unseat even the most rational mind – a reversal, if you will, of The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which the intellect of David Bowie’s stranded alien was destroyed by the vapid compulsions of Earthly consumerism. It’s just a shame that German wasn’t interested in telling it.
Words> Matt Packer