A few years ago I remember reading a newspaper article about a journalist who had infiltrated a film set. This was no ordinary set, however, and it was not for any ordinary film. An entire village had been constructed, if you were part of the cast you were expected to live there, and filming had already been going on for three years. I have the oddest feeling the film in question was Aleksei German’s HARD TO BE A GOD, which is just about to get a Blu-ray release from Arrow Films after a short cinema run.
Every now and then you find yourself watching a film that you know is something different, something special, something entirely original. I don’t mean that it has a novel plot idea or showcases the latest developments in special effects. I mean something entirely unique, something you know could not possibly exist without a degree of dedication to its creation bordering on the pathological. Werner Herzog’s AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD comes to mind, or perhaps Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW.
HARD TO BE A GOD is one of those films.
I don’t really know how to describe it, but here we go: it’s three hours long, black and white, Russian, and is based on a book by those masters of the science fiction novel, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Probably the most famous adaptation of their work is STALKER by Andrei Tarkovsky, a version of their book Roadside Picnic that takes longer to watch than to read the book. Oddly enough the same is probably true of HARD TO BE A GOD.
On the planet Arkanar, which resembles the muddiest, filthiest, shittiest Middle Ages Terry Gilliam could ever come up with, the Renaissance has been repressed. Intellectuals are drowned in faeces and there is general resistance to any form of progress. A group of scientists travel to Arkanar with the intention of helping the locals out of their developmental rut. They are forbidden from participating in local politics and aren’t allowed to use force in any way. Met with resistance at every turn and caught in a battle between two opposing factions, it becomes apparent that ‘godlike’ intervention may in fact be impossible.
HARD TO BE A GOD is remarkable for many reasons, but it’s certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. The film is packed with detail (most of it covered in mud) and the sheer number of participating cast members is overwhelming at times. The use of a hand-held subjective camera means you’re often in the thick of the filth, with locals leering at you, waving chicken legs in your face and so on. Don’t expect rapid plot development - after an hour I was still wondering if anything was actually going to happen, or if we were just going to be subjected to another two hours of people up to their armpits in muck.
The film rewards sticking with it, though, and by the time you get to the end you actually want to watch it again and again, if only to catch all the detail you will have missed the first time around. A bit like the grungiest, grimmest, and most mental fantasy film you will ever see (the SF is really nominal), there really is nothing else like HARD TO BE A GOD & I can’t imagine there being anything like it anytime soon.
Arrow’s Blu-ray comes with interviews with the director’s son and Svetlana Karmalita, the director’s widow and co-screenwriter (German himself is no longer with us). Aleksei German’s career is profiled in a valuable featurette by Michael Brooke, and Daniel Bird offers an appreciation of the film. You also get an image gallery, trailer and reversible sleeve. Oh, and of course the monochrome photography looks stunning on Blu-ray.
HARD TO BE A GOD is out on Region 2 DVD and Region B
Blu-ray on 14th September 2015