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Hard To Be A God

July 16, 2015

Alexei German’s Hard To Be A God is now streaming on Netflix and Fandor. I had the good fortune of seeing it at Anthology Film Archives during a visit to New York this winter. It is the kind of overwhelmingly visceral movie that gains a great deal from being seen on the big screen, but you should not miss seeing it anyway you can (well, not on your phone, that would just be pathetic). It is — everyone who writes about it seems to end up with this word — a masterpiece. A film like no other.

Based on the novel by the great Russian sci-fi writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Hard To Be A God has a plot that German does not care too much about and that you will have a hard time figuring out. That is okay, you can just sink in to it (and ‘sink’ is the right word). The premise is that in the future humans discover a planet just like Earth, with people just like us, but at a medieval stage of development. A few Earthlings infiltrate the planet to secretly observe. They hope to witness a Renaissance. But that does not happen, as the authorities brutally snuff out every sign of learning and invention. The movie follows one of these men, Don Rumata, who has adopted the identity of an aristocrat, said to be the son of a god.

The world German creates, for three hours and in black and white, is a nightmare of filth, grime, snot, scum, rot, and shit. Dark, dank, fetid, festering, dying and decayed. And people to match, a panoply of the grotesque. In art design, wardrobe, make-up and casting the film reaches into the far depths of sheer gnarliness.  It is a wonder. And then German shoves his camera, and our faces, right into this cesspool, making us, like Rumata, not just observers but reluctant participants. The camerawork is an even greater wonder. There is all kinds of movement but nowhere to go, no escaping this shithole world. I have never seen so much use of the extreme foreground in a movie, things are always getting in the way, too close, interfering with the view and our status as viewers. And German sometimes has his actors look straight into the camera, offhandedly gesturing or even speaking to us, further creating an uncanny sense of presence.

Things happen and they are bad things. Bodies do not remain intact for long in this world.

When I stood up to leave the theater, though not before then, I felt ill. My friend and I made the journey back to Brooklyn in stunned silence. It was a great movie.

Not for everyone. It can challenge the patience of the viewer, as well certain normal and healthy human sensitivities. But there is a lot of bad art that does the same, and really is worth avoiding. Hard To Be A God is great art. It is suffused with the joy of its making, with wit and brio and love. There is a special exhilaration that comes from seeing the worst of human experience transmuted — not in its solid reality, which remains untouched, but in its image and name — into art, where it becomes the plaything of the free imagination.

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