Going Medieval: Hard to Be a God

01/28/2015 9:00 AM |
Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber

Hard to Be a God
Directed by Aleksei Guerman
January 30-February 8 at Anthology Film Archives
In Sedmoy Sputnik (1968), Aleksei Guerman’s first (co-directed) feature, two former members of the Tsar’s army imprisoned by the Bolsheviks discuss Tolstoy on the occasion of his birth. One murmurs, “Russia’s great writer.” “What’s that?” the other ruefully asks. “Another century… another planet.” Although Guerman, who died in 2013, would later disown it for being trite propaganda, many elements of Sedmoy Sputnik are oddly echoed his final film, a cannily warped adaptation of a Strugatsky Brothers short story, just now being released here. Hard to Be a God begins in medias res, a voiceover explaining how a group of scientists discovered the planet Arkanar, an identical copy of Earth where the Renaissance never happened: All of the intellectuals, artists, and skilled craftsmen are being systematically killed off. (In an early scene, a wise man is lowered headfirst into a public toilet.) The ever-present protagonist—only known by his pseudonym, Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik)—traveled to the planet to observe and not interfere with society’s development, and lives as a nobleman descended from divinity.

However, as the title suggests, there’s not much pleasure to be had in this Hobbesian hellhole that’s as crowded, violent, and filthy as a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The muddy, perpetually rainy city that Don Rumata stalks on his vague quests recalls the fact that St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), Peter the Great’s bid to show the rest of Europe how cultured Russia was, was constructed on a swamp by peasants. It’s people like these—history’s extras, as it were—that quite literally overrun the frame and imbue every second of the film with a carnivalesque sense of futility. With the comportment of Punch and Judy puppets (sometimes with the grotesque facial features to match), these village idiots fill the void of the actual narrative, which is only evinced in extremely brief snippets of dialogue at random moments in a scene: One requires a familiarity with the original story, or multiple viewings of the film, to fully grasp it.

Guerman presents the horrific realities of medieval life as exhausting, both to live and to watch: in perhaps the biggest departure from the source text, the Don is middle aged, haggard, and in a near-constant state of exasperation, which alternately manifests itself as weariness and violent outbursts. Characteristically long takes and naturally presented, overlapping dialogue are reminiscent of Robert Altman; hanging objects and movements frequently block Don Rumata from view. (These long shots are also paired with extreme close-ups, ostensibly shot from the small crystal on Don Rumata’s forehead.) At first the impulse is to drink heavily from this CGI-free, flawless, Gilliam-esque microcosm, but it very quickly becomes a surfeit—it’s difficult to imagine how much more unbearable it would be in color.

Overflowing as it is with shit and cynicism, the obvious temptation is to label this film as being “about” Putin, Stalin, or the glory days of the aforementioned White Russians. It’s probably something closer to all three at once, a viler truth of rulers’ de facto inhumanity towards their subjects, and our inability to evolve, the other contemporary parallel being the CIA’s black sites. The throbbing mania of our modern, digital, Western world is fundamentally no different than this feudal frenzy—it’s just a little cleaner on the surface.