I left the screening of Hard to Be a God with a variety of emotions and thoughts – drained and exhausted, thankful for basic hygiene and above all with that tingling feeling that I had just witnessed something great, but then anxiety and dread soon settled in – not at the film per se, though it is very unsettling and horrific – but at the recollection that I’d put my hand up to review it. How to make sense, in some 1000 odd words, of a film of this singular kind? There’s a temptation to simply list contradicting adjectives – beautiful, ugly, visionary, unpleasant – all of which would illuminate but not penetrate the core of this incredible, uncategorisable film. The short version of a review would be that it is one of the most impressive films in recent memory, and as I will touch on further, a film that demonstrates the power of the cinematic experience.
We understand the premise more that the plot, insofar as an expositional narration over the first few minutes is the closest thing to narrative we’re treated to. On a planet very similar to Earth, civilisation is going through its dark ages, roughly 800 years behind Earth but with no Renaissance in sight. Thirty scientists from Earth are sent there, but blend in as demi-gods. From there, it becomes murkier – there’s clearly a quest as we follow one of these ‘gods’, Don Rumata, through the film’s unique world, and although there seem to be synopses online outlining what that is exactly, it’s not immediately decipherable from the film and doesn’t feel necessary to do so. The source novel is a thinly-veiled attack on USSR’s prosecution of artists and intellectuals, and while some of this translates across, for the most part narrative has been left behind in favour of sheer audio-visual experience, of a grander vision in one of the most impressively realised cinematic worlds ever put on celluloid.
Establishing shots are few and far between – as I will mention, the film prefers oppressive close-ups and close-quarter environments – but sets up a world evocative of Andrei Rublev, as convincing a medieval environment as ever seen, and the sheer scope and detail impresses. An immediate triumph of set design and costume, German’s eye for detail sets this apart as an incredible instance of cinematic world building. The faces of every extra suggest untold hours of casting alongside bringing together the rest of the film’s absolute minutiae. Germinating in the director’s head since the 1960s, the film is a product of obsession and perfectionism. Its sheer barbarism is evident from the opening shots, and sets up a three hour journey through realistic cruelty and untold amounts and types of bodily fluids in a convincing, nightmarish vision of our past and this world’s present.
The unclassifiable Hard to Be a God is perhaps closest aligned to artworks outside of cinema – aside from the film’s obvious literary connections to the source novel, many astute reviewers have noted the resemblance to paintings by Bruegel or Hieronymous Bosch in its panning tableaux of cruelty, debauchery and an unmistakeable, ugly seething mass of humanity. The lasting genius of the film however is that in spite of its relationship and clear influence from these other texts, it utilises the medium of cinema so perfectly that it could clearly not have manifested itself in any other form, and it reminds us how uniquely powerful and immersive the art form of the shared visual experience is.
As much a film as one of those interactive theme park attractions or one of those old Cinerama island holiday showreels, the film takes you on a guided tour through a world you would never want to visit – through long corridors, caverns and cranneys surrounded by mud, blood, stone and flesh, occasionally jolted into first person perspective – characters and extras look at the camera (one of the perhaps many similarities of Fellini Satyricon, perhaps the closest cinematic cousin to the film), sometimes obfuscating it with objects, half beckoning us further into our journey, half warning us to leave as fast as we can. Through perspective we also form a fascination with our lead character, Don Rumata – as we follow him through the film a peculiar sense of stewardship or protection develops in his relationship to us – so often he’ll push something or someone aside, neutralise violent threats in our path and lead us through some horrific scene. It feels like he’s holding our hand throughout this ever-changing and hostile environment, and this clearly demented, dangerous Kinski-in-Aguirre type figure gives us some form of comfort or reassurance – in the very few frames Don Rumata is not immediately visible a mild sense of panic sets in, like a child who loses sight of his parents in a shopping mall.
It’s a film where the cinematic experience is so crucial – sitting in the middle of a packed theatre, where I’d rather die than suffer the silent annoyance of others if I had to leave my seat and shuffle past them on the way out, added to the film’s effect. Hell, it was even appropriate on a meta level that the particular cinema I was in had insufficient leg room between myself and the seats in front. This is to say nothing of the unrivalled audiovisual qualities of a cinema; not only does the film need to be experienced on a giant screen, but I have rarely been so appreciative of the possibilities of sound in a cinema. As impressive as the film is visually, its unique, visceral effect is testament to its sound design – every squelch and crash reverberates expansively in your brain and the constant sounds of metal against stone, of sharp weapons and instruments makes you apprehend their collision with the far weaker human flesh. Unspeakable horror could be around every corner (and more often than not, it is) and the sound combined with the unknowing, limited first person perspective makes you acutely aware of the continual state of alertness and terror such an inhabitant of this world must be in. It further manipulates the viewing experience it what it withholds from us – the rare wide, establishing shot feels liberating and refreshing before the film throws us back into the cramped caverns of suffering and muck. It also understands our lust for violence, but doesn’t pander to it – we crave the kinetic energy of a quick-cut, high impact fight or battle scene, but instead are cramped with sluggish, slow savagery. The film also traffics in Ozu’s blueballing – like how one of the master’s films will centre around a wedding or character we never see, this film builds up tension to pressure outlets that are never realised. German has an impressive command over filmmaking and the audience that allows the film to have its full effect.
What the film says in the end may depend on the viewer, but there’s an unmistakeable vision arising out of the carnage. We may have evolved and developed tenfold, but there’s no more humanity now than then, and there’s a suggestion that our development out of violence and savagery is out of convenience rather than any learned morality. The film’s duration and pace is also thematically provocative – after two hours, we come to peace of sorts with the world of the film. Whether battered into submission, or simply over our real-world predilections for hygiene and safety, our reactions in the face of the film’s relentlessness (even as in many respects, the film intensifies) are far more muted. We come to terms, even near-comfort with the world of the film. At the start of the film, we ask ourselves how humanity ever survived in these conditions. By the end, we begin to wonder how we ever mustered up the courage and energy to change.
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