“Hard to be a God” takes place on another planet, under the regime of Arkanar. The world looks and feels like medieval Europe. Source: Kinopoisk.ru
When director Alexei German died last year, some of his devotees feared that his potential international legacy might depart with him. While he was arguably the voice of his generation, known as the living torch of Andrei Tarkovsky, the 74-year-old master was little known and underappreciated overseas. His defining film and magnum opus was still in postproduction, and many feared it would never reach the screen.
The much-anticipated film, ‘Hard to Be a God,’ has finally opened in Russia after a terribly long wait. German spent more than 13 years (15 if you count pre-production) shooting the film, showing it to journalists and friends, editing, re-editing and enslaving it in post-production.
He wanted a film like no other before it. Even fans of his work had thrown up their hands and stopped waiting. Then German died in February 2013.
Yet film buffs soon discovered hope anew. Rumours circulated that perhaps the film would be shown after all. His son, Alexei German Jr., has also emerged as a film director.
In his mid-thirties, he has already had considerable success — in part because there is now an infrastructure for Russian film that wasn’t there for his father 20 years ago.
German Jr. assembled Hard to Be a God with the help of his screenwriter mother and screened the work at the Rome Film Festival in November 2013. Huge, reverential crowds watched as his family, dressed in black, entered the theatre.
Author Umberto Eco gave it a glowing review, drawing a memorable contrast between German and another director: “After seeing German’s films,” Eco wrote in an essay, “you can rest assured that Tarantino’s films are mere Walt Disney productions.”
It is true that Hard to Be a God is not for the faint of heart.
The director and the writers
Though his oeuvre of films is small — he directed five feature-length movies — each film is memorable. Any fan of Yuri Nikulin, the famous clown of the Moscow Circus, will be stunned by his dramatic turn in ‘Twenty Days without War.’ German was also known for his anti-Soviet bent.
His award-winning films ‘Trial on the Road,’ (1971) and ‘My Friend Ivan Lapshin’ (1986) were tucked away by the censorship committees and released much later, though they were shown and showered with awards on the festival circuits.
His film ‘Khrustalyov, My Car’ (1998) was produced after the Soviet Union was dismantled, “but before Russian film distribution and exhibition was fully revived,” according to an appreciation in Film Comment.
“Yet another overlooked masterpiece, it was barely shown in Russian theatres and its Cannes premiere was panned,” Anton Dolin wrote, “although many reviewers publicly apologized subsequently, explaining that they hadn’t understood the film on the first viewing.”
After Andrey Tarkovsky’s death, it was the Russian view that Alexey German remained the last light of a fading era. So the public waited patiently for Hard to Be a God, based on the science fiction fantasy novel of the same name by the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky — also revered in literary circles.
Hard to be a God is one of their most successful and widely discussed works: It takes place on another planet, under the regime of Arkanar. The world looks and feels like medieval Europe: it teems with turmoil, mud, sickness, rioting, rebellion and bloodshed.
The protagonist is Don Rumata, a progressive who has come with a mission from planet Earth to bring enlightenment to the place — and he is something between a spy and a political strategist.
To stay undercover, he must live in the same beastly conditions as the local denizens and behave like a boar in order not to stand out.
You will not be nice forcefully
The novel explores the theme that no one can be forcefully dragged into the bright future. The attempt to extract Arkanar from crisis with violent methods leads to a bloody crossroads.
The book was published with a small print run, yet its underground status only boosted its popularity.
German long wanted to bring the book to the screen. In 1968, he wrote a screenplay with Boris Strugatsky. Literally the next day, Soviet tanks invaded Czechoslovakia and crushed the Prague Spring, which was an attempt at peaceful reform in the country.
The book’s content regarding the imposition of will on nations coincided too much with the events of the day; German and Strugatsky were blocked from producing the screenplay.
In the late 1980s, during Perestroika, Peter Fleischmann of Germany was invited to direct a film of the same book. Sets were built in Crimea and a consummate action film was made and promptly forgotten. Yet German had not forgotten his idea to shoot the film. He set to work in 1999.
Slow and steady wins the race
Clearly, German never stood out for producing films quickly. It took him nearly eight years to make his previous film “Khrustalyev, My Car!” But in this case he outdid himself. With incredible scrupulousness, he started to create an unfamiliar world, the dirt and horror of a ruined country.
There is not a single redemptive character. The author does not give the viewer any hope — everything is bad, from beginning to end.
Even Lars von Trier, in his hopeless film “Melancholia,” portrays an awakening of humanity in the main protagonist toward the end of the film, but Hard to Be a God surpasses even von Trier when it comes to hopelessness.
But there is something poignant in the fact that his son was able to finish the epic film that he shouldered for most of his life.
In a conversation with RIR, German Jr. said that he had not changed a single frame of the movie: “My father decided everything earlier. The movie moved in the direction that he wanted — in accordance with his records, indications, desires and will.”
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