Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Hard To Be A God

The past is another planet – they do things differently there. This monochrome dream-epic of medieval cruelty and squalor is a non-sci-fi sci-fi; a monumental, and monumentally mad film that the Russian film-maker Alexei German began working on around 15 years ago. It was completed by his son, Alexei German Jr, after the director’s death in 2013. If ever a movie deserved the title folie de grandeur it is this, placed before audiences on a take-it-or-leave-it basis: maniacally vehement and strange, a slo-mo kaleidoscope of chaos and also a relentless prose poem of fear, featuring three hours’ worth of non-sequitur dialogue, where each line is an imagist stab with nothing to do what has just been said.

What on earth does it mean? I have my own theory, of which more in a moment. Hard to Be a God is based on the 1964 novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, whose later work Roadside Picnic was filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1979 as Stalker. It is set in what appears to be a horrendous central European village of the middle ages, as imagined by Hieronymus Bosch, where grotesquely ugly and wretched peasants are condemned to clamber over each other for all eternity, smeared in mud and blood: a world beset with tyranny and factional wars between groups called “Blacks” and “Greys”. In the midst of this, what looks like an imperious baronial chieftain called Don Rumata, played by Leonid Yarmolnik, walks with relative impunity: this sovereignty is based on his claim to be descended from a god.

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This uncategorisable epic is set on another planet, but it feels extraterrestrial in every sense – the sort of visionary undertaking that, according to cinema’s usual commercial and narrative logics, ought not to exist. But director Aleksei German was one of the great hard cases of Russian cinema. His previous film Khrustalyov, My Car! – a Fellini-like nightmare about Stalin’s purges – was a daunting monolith of often inscrutable extremity. If that film was the Ulysses of Russian cinema, Hard to Be a God is surely its Finnegans Wake.

This epic was six years in the shooting, and German died in 2013 before he could finish it; it was completed by his wife and co-writer Svetlana Karmalita, and son, director Aleksei German Jr. The result may be an awe-inspiring folly rather than a fully realised masterpiece, but it’s radically out of the ordinary. Based on a novel by the Strugatsky brothers, whose Roadside Picnic inspired Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the film is set on a planet mired in a bloody, muddy version of the middle ages. The impenetrable narrative involves an earthling scientist operating undercover during the reign of a tyrannical warlord, but German’s prime concern is the hyper-detailed evocation of a hellish world in constant violent flux. It’s as if a time traveller had gone back and handed a movie camera to Brueghel or Bosch. As medieval fantasy goes, it makes Game of Thrones look like musical chairs.

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Aleksei German, who has died of heart failure aged 74, was among the very last in a generation of film directors victimised by the Soviet Union's draconian attitude to the arts. As a result, since 1968 German had made only six films, one of them co-directed and one uncompleted at his death. Three of them were shelved for several years, and Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998), seven years in the making, was repeatedly bailed out by French money. German's reputation is based on only four films, all of them masterpieces.

Gradually, after the fall of communism in Russia, German's films were screened at cinematheques and festivals in the west. Khrustalyov, My Car!, the only one of his works that was not banned, provoked a mass walkout by critics at the 1998 Cannes film festival. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the 150-minute film was "incomprehensible for long stretches and unforgivably unfunny in the endless scenes of manic visual satire". Martin Scorsese, who was president of the Cannes jury, remarked that German's film obviously deserved the Palme d'Or, but he wasn't able to convince his fellow jurors because he didn't really understand it. Since then, many critics, initially confused by the opaque narrative and overwhelmed by its black humour and nightmarish vision of Russia during the last days of Stalin, have acclaimed the film.

Despite his films having had limited distribution, German is now considered by many the equal of the better-known Andrei Tarkovsky. My Friend Ivan Lapshin, which German completed in 1982, was released in Russia in 1986 thanks to glasnost. It was subsequently voted the best Soviet film ever made in a national poll of film critics.

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