The setup of Russian filmmaker Aleksei German’s final film, the brimstone, shit-and-blood fantasia Hard To Be A God (2013) —twelve years in the making and finally released in the UK on DVD and Blu Ray by the never-bolder Arrow Films — is that a group of scientists make their way to an impossibly Earth-like alien planet where they discover a stalled society of abject humanoids stewing in its Middle Ages.
As with German’s previous film, Khrustalyov, My Car (1998), there is an outside force, background figures that drive what little momentum the narrative has, hell-bent on repressing a fledgling ideology before it has even been dreamt up. It’s a pulpy premise which German treats with total irreverence, with endless Steadicam shots scurrying through belching, grayscale Stygia—trapping characters and their decontextualized dialogues in airless close-ups—taking on an extra-narrative significance of their own. What this runabout non-style ultimately amounts to is an accumulating sense of the contours of a room, the particular feel of wandering around inside this destitute, ornamental landscape.
With his shuffling, wide-angle images and inscrutable sound design, German allows very few details of this high-concept setup to be explicated outside of those gleaned from mumbled lines of half-chewed dialogue spat out in the midst of perpetual motion. As American critic Manny Farber wrote of Michael Snow’s Back and Forth (1969), “Just listing the ingredients doesn’t sound like a real night out at the films.” But German, much like Orson Welles, is able to mobilise every element of his continuously morphing frame and steer it into a specific, run-along design. As always, the director’s savant-like detailing of an intricate plastic world and its operational specificities, a style clear-eyed but never clarifying, take over as the moment-to-moment subject of the movie; from an accretion of visual, visceral detail, we begin to grasp German’s project: to give over a picture—or a sniff, a lick—of the limitless suck of living.
An anti-epic of epic proportions (or should it be the other way around?), the movie is basically a series of intense, liquid-motion dialogues—characters stalking back and forth, from foreground to background and back again, camera lurching to reframe the scene past dangling detritus—punctuated by stretches of intolerable, pictorially exquisite flagellation. “Here are tablecloths for puking on,” chirrups one medieval rube. “Blood is sticky,” remarks another.
The kick I got out of all the artful cruelty was, as with Bela Tarr and Tarantino, the fakeness of the whole project. But unlike either of those two, German’s film sees the transformation of such detailed staginess into a drama of space that is transgressed in real time: the cascading motion of a falling slave tumbling backwards into a mud-puddle, or the tilts of the camera that, as in German’s masterpiece Twenty Days Without War (1976) or the delirious Khrustalyov, My Car!, seem to summon torrents of slanted rainfall to hammer down on the set from an unseen god-technician outside the frame.
But, unlike Tarr and my description, German could hardly be accused of miserablism, here or elsewhere. There’s a spirited, paradoxical openness to the impenetrability of Hard To Be A God: that is, he seems to believe in shutting down the intelligible relay of narrative information to pull us, gawping at the decorative horror, into his mise en scène perambulations.
As with all German protagonists, Don Rumata—one of the cruel, passive scientists infiltrating the alien society—is an identification figure for both the audience (helplessly swept away by the current of half-digested narrative information) and the camera itself (similarly breathless, panicky, obsequious, full of hesitation), but one whose presence seems to erase the function of one. Like many of the supporting characters, Rumata is content to gaze into the lens, to break off from the general feeling of propulsion the movie might begin to accumulate, and take off in another direction, taking us to a new wing of the abattoir.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen such fine-calibrated, disgusting chaos outside of German’s equally-batty Khrustalyov, My Car!. This is without a doubt the grubbiest film ever made, making this high definition release somewhat essential.
Hard To Be A God is out now on DVD and Blu-Ray.