UK Release Date: 14th September 2015
Runtime: 177 minutes
Director: Aleksei German
Writer: German & Svetlana Karmalita
Starring: Leonid Yarmolnik, Aleksandr Chutko, Yuri Tsurilo, Yevgeni Gerchakov
Synopsis: An Earth scientist struggles to induce a cultural awakening on a planet trapped in an unsettling and revolting portrait of the Middle Ages.
Russian filmmaker Aleksei German spent the last decade of his life working on Hard to Be a God – the monochrome sci-fi film that was to become his legacy. He started shooting the film in 2000 and spent six years behind the camera. A lengthy post-production process meant that German died in 2013 before the film was actually completed. Later that year, his filmmaker son finished the job. The result is an ungainly, overlong mess of a movie, but one that is admirably insane.
Hard to Be a God is now available on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK, courtesy of the team at Arrow Films.
Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) is a scientist from Earth, who travelled to an Earth-like planet in the hope of gently inducing a cultural renaissance to their bestial society, reminiscent of the Middle Ages. However, Don Reba (Aleksandr Chutko) and his military force known as the Greys, capture and kill artists and intellectuals. Rumata decides to intervene and change things for the better.
The first thing to say when discussing Hard to Be a God is that it is a remarkable feat that the film exists at all. It is a visually rich, endlessly ambitious epic of a picture that showcases a filmmaker utterly devoted to his craft and producing his magnum opus in all of its glory. Unfortunately, to the film-going audience, it’s something of an indulgent slog.
| "A scholar is not an enemy. The enemy is a scholar in doubt."
Chief among the problems with Hard to Be a God is its utter narrative incoherence. There’s a big dump of exposition at the beginning of the film, but then the viewer is left to fend for themselves in the midst of a world that doesn’t want them to understand it. Dialogue is just as likely to be a mumbled non-sequitur as it is a vital piece of information, so it’s impossible to sieve the gold from the nonsense and the laboured platitudes that probably sounded better in Russian than they do in subtitled English.
As much as the world German creates is rich and visually interesting, with perpetual activity filling every corner of the frame, it’s difficult to ever become invested in it. Hard to Be a God doesn’t really contain a single character and certainly doesn’t contain one worth caring about. Largely, it’s a procession of anonymous cretins who gaze and gurn into the camera, either blankly or waving some chunk of human viscera. It says a lot about the lack of character that much of the film’s gruesome violence lands entirely without impact.
Such unhinged indulgence would be tolerable in a film of reasonable length, but at a bum-numbing three hours, Hard to Be a God really pushes its luck. It takes around an hour before any sort of plot kicks into gear and, even then, the film periodically gets bored of its own narrative and wanders off to take a look at something else that it seems to think is more interesting. The world is rich enough that it creates depth for itself without German needing to give so much screen time to Leonid Yarmolnik wandering around a village.
| "Punish the cruel to teach the strong not to be cruel."
Hard to Be a God is a film that flirts with greatness, but lacks the discipline to ever hit the heights it could have done. It is an impressive visual work, with plenty of dirt, grit and blood under its fingernails, but there’s not enough in terms of plot or character to sustain interest for such an epic running time.
I gave three hours of my life to this film. I’m not sure it gave me a lot back.
The special features package for Hard to Be a God is an ample one, featuring an introduction from co-writer Svetlana Karmalita and an interview with the young Aleksei German, who completed his father’s film. Other features focus on German’s career and critical appreciation of his work.
Pop or Poop?
Admirable in just about every way, Hard to Be a God should be celebrated for existing, but it suffers from enormous indulgence and a lack of discipline that hurts it immensely.
The world is gritty, dense and constantly alive, but the film never makes us care about anyone in it.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
Hard to Be a God is available on Blu-ray from today courtesy of Arrow Films.