Imagine an episode of Game of Thrones as performed by the cast of Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade minus the fantasy elements and with an even more staggering attention to medieval detail and you’ll maybe grasp a small potion of the late Aleksei German’s outstanding, brutal (yet beautiful) Hard to be a a God. This 2013 film (the director’s last) isn’t for the easily disturbed but if you’re willing to sit through the almost three hour running time, you’ll likely find yourself glued to the screen from beginning to end.
While it may not look like a sci-fi film, right from the start you’ll see subtitles that note the story takes place on an earth-like planet going through its medieval phase about 800 years after ours. A group of scientists have been send there to observe the planet and gently nudge it forward without using technology or politics as it goes through what should be a renaissance phase. Unfortunately, things kind of get a bit out if hand when intellectuals of all types become targets for murder by a tyrant’s roaming militia intent on keeping the people uneducated and (mostly) harmless. Actually, about 28 minutes in, you get a reminder that you’re on another world thanks to a quick shot of something mechanical making itself known. But even then, the illusion of an incessantly nasty age isn’t at all broken.
This is a case where you’ll absolutely want to read the source novel by Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky, as the film’s rather unconventional storytelling is going to be a hurdle for some viewers. In fact, the film is so intensely and intentionally bizarre to the point that plot almost is secondary to the visuals. Or: coming in knowing as much as possible will help those who tend to ‘look but don’t see’ when they watch deep cinematic experiences such as this. You’ll also want to be wide awake and very patient, as the film can be tricky to follow if you get too busy reading the subtitles and aren’t letting the imagery do its thing.
In short, Anton (Leonid Yarmolnik), one of the earth scientists, has managed to insert himself into a spacious but filthy castle as Don Rumata, a nobleman who’s revered by some and eyed warily by others. Rumata’s penchant for collecting and playing strange instruments, being a bit cruel and crude with his servants and a few other quirks he’s picked up during his time in the Kingdom of Arkanar has kind of made him ‘go native’ a wee bit too much, but he’s somewhat careful not to let his cover be blown. As the killings continue, Rumata seeks out a kidnapped doctor, but is himself caught up in the militia’s purging only to escape and gain a few allies (and more enemies). There’s more, but this one has to be seen (or experienced) in full to be fully appreciated.
(Thanks, Sebastián González!)
As mentioned, the film excels in its visual richness and period detail, but it also makes one glad that, current craziness aside, we live in a more modern age. German’s roving camera catches every bit of rain, mud, poop, snot, blood and more. The actors are amazing here because it seems they were guided to respond to the camera, breaking the fourth wall by staring, talking to and even poking or tossing objects towards it. Every scene has multiple layers, the camera often acknowledges elements in a scene, then floats away as if bored and focuses on something else entirely before maybe ending up where it started (or somewhat close to it). Add in the offbeat performances and the overall feeling of tension (that sometimes leads to violence) and you get an experience that’s about as densely packed as a film can be.
Even the film’s humorous moments are tainted by the threat of something nasty happening off camera or on and nope, no one is safe from harm here. There’s a relentless, overwhelming sense of dread, yet in all that muck is a really gorgeously shot film. In a way, the film feels like a documentary shot surreptitiously by time travelers who managed to get a bit too close to the locals. I’d not recommend it at all to kids, but feel free to pop this in if you’re into monuments of film that grab you by the eyeballs and pull a Ludovico Technique on them as they take your brain along for the ride. I’m going to go out on a limb and bet for some new to this, this film will help with any dieting for the day. If you’re squeamish, you may not want to eat before you watch this and eating afterwards may be kind of a toss up.
Oh by the way, there’s a video game connection here to note. Back in 2007, there was a PC action/RPG with the same title, but it’s actually a sequel to events in the novel. You play as a young student scientist sent to the Arkanar area to investigate the disappearance of Don Rumata. The game initially shipped in Europe and I believe the UK only, but North American gamers can pick it up now on Steam for eight bucks. I have the disc version I imported a few years back and should note the game initially shipped with a few bugs including one that would make your character go into debt when you sold items in your inventory. Oops. I’ll need to see if the Steam version fixes that bug.
So, let’s do a checklist to close this post (which by the way, is another entry in The Outer Space Blogathon hosted by Moon In Gemini): Book? CHECK. Film based on book? CHECK. Snacks? Er, optional, but CHECK, anyway (just in case). Game? Maybe. It’s not necessary to enjoy the film and I don’t want anyone disemboweling me online because I told them to buy a so-so game they may not like as much as a far superior film.