When Aleksei German died in February 2013, he left behind a nearly finished magnum opus, “Hard to Be a God.” With the assistance of son Aleksei German Jr. and wife and collaborator Svetlana Karmalita, the movie was completed, most likely just as the great man would have wanted. Boisterous, overstuffed, richly designed and utterly incomprehensible, “Hard” is set on a planet stuck in the Dark Ages, depicting a world of violence, filth and crudeness meant to be a metaphor for our own times. Truly impressive camerawork holds interest through the protracted running time, yet only German devotees will have sufficient patience.
The project was discussed as far back as the mid-1960s, but German didn’t begin shooting until 2000, ending in 2006. Who knows how much footage was developed; since there’s no discernible narrative, it’s easy to imagine the film running far longer than the current three hours, perhaps in an installation at a contemporary art gallery where dilettantes can wander in and out while acolytes sit rooted, spellbound. Prospects for the current cut will be limited to more visionary fests and tributes to the director.
The source material is a sci-fi novel by the brothers Strugatsky, the same scribes whose work was adapted for Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” (one of German’s favorite films), Alexander Sokurov’s “Days of Eclipse,” and others. It’s about the planet Arkanar, visited by a group of Earth scientists who’ve come to observe life on a world resembling Europe in the Middle Ages. Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) is one of the researchers studying its volatile population, yet there’s little sense that he’s anything other than a local leader, rumored to be the illegitimate son of a god.
There’s a war going on between the Blacks and the Grays, though it’s basically impossible to tell which side is which. In any event, this isn’t a film with a decipherable storyline, but rather a pageant of details designed to conjure a coarse universe where brutality and ugliness have the upper hand — surely a comment on our own degraded century. German’s chief influences (like Sokurov’s in “Faust”) are the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, the Brueghels and other Northern artists whose depictions of the grotesque, the impoverished and the vulgar presented a fallen world largely incapable of fixing its eyes on salvation.
“Hard to Be a God” offers no salvation, no redemptive hope in an earthly renaissance or a heavenly deliverance. There’s no perceptible difference between the beginning and the end, just a long — too long — panoply of men (it’s almost exclusively male) fighting, farting, drinking, shouting. Though German’s ability to sustain it all is impressive, there’s barely a development in style between this and “Khrustalyov, My Car!” Perhaps “Hard” should be seen as the culmination of this approach, an astonishingly bold reaction to Soviet control that now feels too much of another era to make any impact in this one. In essence it’s an historical artifact created in a time capsule: impressive in its way, yet its retardataire mannerisms require more distance before judgment can be passed on whether it’s a major work engaged in earlier forms, or an intriguing footnote trapped in a spent modality.
What can’t be questioned is the remarkable black-and-white lensing by Vladimir Ilyin and Yuri Klimenko, the latter with notable credits including “The Legend of Suram Fortress,” and the former as German’s d.p. on “Khrustalyov.” Tracking shots move through the teeming sets with astonishing determination, the camera at times acting as Rumata’s eyes as he wends his way through muck and conflict; the actors must have been exasperated by the uncomfortable conditions. While the mise-en-scene impresses with sustained sequences that seem to almost defy the editor’s hand, the lack of narrative comprehension makes it feel like an exercise moored solely to a defiant, immovable philosophy.
Production designers Sergei Kokovkin, Georgi Kropachev and Elena Zhukova do an extraordinary job fashioning this clamorous world mired in mud (there’s a lot of rain) and peopled with extras chosen for their unharmonious features. Press materials state that Aleksei German Jr. and Karmalita completed the film, though Jr.’s credits on the print are largely relegated to “special thanks.” At one time the film was titled “The Chronicle of the Arkanar Massacre,” but then reverted to the same name as the novel.