God Parts

Nick Pinkerton on “Films by Aleksei German” at Anthology Film Archives

Aleksei German, Hard to Be a God, 2013, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 170 minutes.

FIRST LOOKING DOWN into the still water of a pond dusted with lightly falling snow—the photography is pure black-and-white, which is to say there’s nothing but black and white—the frame rears up to look out across a disorderly, frost-crusted landscape with a distinctly medieval aspect, dotted with a few ragged muzhiks. “This is not Earth, it’s another planet,” asserts a narrator, grumbling in Russian, though this claim is up against the evidence of our eyes.

This is the disorienting opening of Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God, an epic at once claustrophobically immediate and otherworldly. The premise—thirty Russian scientists from an unidentified point in time have been sent to covertly observe life on a planet which is identical to Earth but lags centuries behind in development, never having experienced nor ever likely to experience a Renaissance or an Enlightenment—comes from a 1964 novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, two brothers whose science-fiction works were popular with Eastern Bloc readers, and whose Piknik na obochine (Roadside Picnic) was adapted by Andrei Tarkovsky into his 1979 Stalker. (The Strugatskys’ Hard to Be a God was reprinted last summer by Chicago Review Press.) In an opening narration tightly packed with vital exposition—pay attention, it won’t be repeated—we’re given a succinct rundown of the planet’s rival factions and nation-states (Oltregolfo, Irukan), and introduced to the film’s protagonist, Don Rumata, played by the brawny and swaggering Leonid Yarmolnik. Rumata is an earthling who poses as a nobleman “descended from Goran, a local pagan God,” and his brusque manner disguises an outraged sensitivity, for it is his fate to stand witness without intervention as another despot, Don Reba, carries out a purge of the local intelligentsia.

The first (and not last) execution in Hard to Be a God has a “wise guy” drowned in an outdoor latrine. Arbitrary acts of casual barbarism mount as we follow Rumata on his appointed rounds, while further dumps of exposition arrive as suddenly and torrentially as the cloudbursts which keep this planet’s inhabitants mired in mud, as they are mired in merry, brutish ignorance. A viewer is not less likely to be confused—clarifying matters of who and where and why for an audience is of secondary importance to German, who delights in shooting smothering banks of obfuscating fog, and whose principal occupation here is the construction of a total, inescapable environment in which to wallow. Where many a fantasy/sci-fi novel is preceded by pages of helpful maps which illustrate for the reader the borders of the imaginary terrain in which their scene is to be set, German flings his audience headfirst into the slops and expects them to make their own way.

Like many an agent to the colonies, Rumata has succumbed to the dissipation around him. He’s first introduced waking from a debauch, and through the course of a long day he grows steadily drunker on both toxic spirits and the sense of his own baffling invulnerability. As heavy and imposing as Rumata’s creaking carapace of armor, the film is welded together from wending Steadicam shots which closely explore his looming body and snuffle about his adopted home’s crevasses and cracks—as in an early shot where a hoodlum uses his pike to prod a bare ass hanging from a second-story outhouse—occasionally pulling back to reveal its expanses. One never has a sense here of a cordoned-off area where the camera cannot turn for fear of banishing the illusion, and the City of Arkanar gives an impression of interminable expanse while being perfect down to the last detail of tooled leather, weathered woodwork, and haphazard clutter.

When Rumata isn’t dominating the frame—and he quite often is—we experience the world through his point-of-view, complete with toadying subjects gawping, groveling, or presenting their broken idiot grins to the camera, fourth wall breaks which recall the Fellini of Satyricon. (The perspective will occasionally divert to the objective from a subjective POV in a single shot.) The film’s credits list two cinematographers (Vladimir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko) and four camera operators, though it manages a remarkable visual consistency, space distinctly delineated into multiple planes by light and shadow as in a film by Von Sternberg, if Von Sternberg had ever decided to make a film about the scrofulous inhabitants of a sodden, squelching pigsty planet.

This tonal consistency is all the more remarkable when one considers that Hard to Be a God, German’s sixth and final film, was shot intermittently between 2000 and 2006, and was in postproduction for a still longer period. Its director did not survive to see the process through, dying in February of 2013—the same year that Hard to Be a God finally premiered at the Rome Film Festival, the sound mix having been completed by his son, director Aleksei A. German, and Svetlana Karmalita, his wife and coauthor of the film’s screenplay.

German completed his first feature in 1967, which should give you some idea of his prolificacy, or lack thereof. In conjunction with Anthology Film Archives’ weeklong run of Hard to Be a God, the theater will be screening three of his landmark earlier works. The wait between German films was not solely a result of his perfectionism, evident in the incredibly detailed sequence shots which make up his latest. Trial on the Road (1971), set during the German invasion of the USSR in World War II, shows a penchant for elaborately engineered, scrolling takes of troop transports and caravans of fleeing peasantry, but what held up its release fifteen years was its failure to conform to the ennobling version of Russian participation in the war, for the film’s antihero (a stone-faced Vladimir Zamansky) is a Soviet defector who has fought for both sides. Trial on the Road was based on a story by the novelist Yuri German, Aleksei’s father, whose work also provided the basis for Aleksei’s 1984 My Friend Ivan Lapshin—in the face of official amnesia, German deals in the transmission of history as a sort of family heirloom, something to be conveyed in textures, postures, and attitudes rather than in facts and figures. Ivan Lapshin is a memory piece which winds together the stories of the residents of a communal apartment and their circle—a police inspector, an itinerant actress, a journalist—in a typical provincial town in 1935. Watching it and 1998’s Khrustalyov, My Car!, you can trace the development of German’s muscular, thrashing style, as well as see the fondness for practical jokes, horseplay, and general prankishness which will turn antic in the grotesquerie of Hard to Be a God, rife with snot rockets, micturition, and pantomime humping.

Hard to Be a God is German’s only film not to be set in post-1917, pre-Khrushchev Russia, though its miasmic, moronic bog-planet may be taken as a flexible metaphor for the unfinished revolutionary Russia of 1964, when the Strugatsky brothers’ novel was published; the Putin kleptocracy, which German saw the beginning of; or a twenty-first-century slum planet devolved into peasant superstition and cackling cruelty. The urge for civilization struggles to survive in the sucking muck, though German shows little hope for the future. One “wise guy” approaches Don Rumata brandishing the broken wing of a crude Da Vinci–esque flying machine. “We’re learning to fly,” he says. “Mostly downwards.”

“Films by Aleksei German” plays January 31–February 10 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.