Usually with film reviews, the critic or reviewer has a mandate to give a reasoned or perhaps educated opinion on the qualities of the film they are writing about. Points covered are things like ccharacterization plot mechanics, style, music and cinematography. The reviewer weighs these against their expectations plus their knowledge of what constitutes a successful film and compares it to the contemporary tastes of the time while also placing it within the context of cinema history. Occasionally though, a film comes along that defies all attempts to categorize it and challenges the audience to not enjoy it or even like it, but to endure its myriad horrors for its entire duration. Hard to be a God is one such film.
Hard to be a God takes place on Arkanar, a planet close to Earth which is developmentally 800 years behind, with the human population still living in medieval squalor. A group of scientists have travelled to the planet to observe the life forms and have been revered as gods by those they have encountered. Since they are being treated as gods, they decide to act like them, wandering from village to village being worshiped and grovelled to, while never interfering in the violent pogroms being inflicted on the “bookworms” (all men of knowledge who are tortured and executed for knowing how to read and write).
This is a film of fluids. Everything is covered in shit, piss and mud and water constantly pours down as rain or through badly patched roofs. Villagers puke on one another and shoot snot out of their noses at any given opportunity, and blood flows when things get violent. The primary protagonist, if you can call him that, is Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), who does almost nothing except bear witness to all the depravity of a world of violence. There are no real heroes or villains, just ugly people doing ugly things in a giant pit of filth. There is the tiniest sliver of a plot to follow, but it is often confusing and is obviously of little importance to the overall feeling of awfulness that permeates off the screen. This film positively reeks.
Hard to be a God defies explanation and categorization and confronts you with the worst of human nature, daring you not to look away. The running time, which is just shy of 3 hours, makes it feel like an endurance test at best and at worst, a punishment from God. Like Dante’s Inferno, we descend into Hell, wading knee deep through a soup of human excrement and base desires.
Director Aleksey German, who died before he could complete the film, depicts this world as a reflection of our own, albeit a reflection seen in a dark and murky pool. Life is nothing but a parade of horrors that we do not experience as much as we have to carve through with a sword. We must constantly fight to stay alive and struggle immensely to even achieve a modicum of worth from the ordeal, all while the gods look on and do nothing.
The production design of this film is remarkable. There is a real talent and skill involved with making everything here look and feel so horrible. This is an extremely tactile film of touch and smell. The soaking wet, faeces stained horribleness feels lived in to the point of wear and tear, and with the characters constantly touching and smelling everything, the whole film pops as if in 3D – although thank Christ it isn’t. There is also a tendency for characters to look at and directly address the camera and hold up objects in the extreme foreground while a scene plays out. These moments never feel out of place. Instead, they make us feel like we are right there with the gods, observing and being involved while not actually effecting anything. This is a stunning visual device which is so strange that it becomes mesmerizing.
This is not a film that can be wholeheartedly recommended unless that recommendation is that this is one of the most singular cinematic experiences you will likely see, if you can stay until the end that is. It is a film that does not ask for any measure and nor does it give any. It is a singular vision that drills deep into your subconscious and chews on it like gum. There is no desire to see this film more than once, but it should be seen. This is cinema at its absolute raw, strange and fucked up best.
That is why this film gets five stars here. It is either an undeniable work of art or a horrible and nasty piece of shit. Or perhaps both? The one thing that is undeniable though is that Hard to be a God is an experience that cannot be explained, it just has to be seen.
Savage, strange, dark and horrifying, Hard To Be A God just has to be seen to be believed.