Russian director Aleksei German’s last film Hard to Be a God (2014) is an adaptation of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1964 novel of the same name.
The Strugatskys were Russian brothers who wrote science fiction novels in the former USSR (Arkady died in 1991 and Boris in 2012). Their most famous work, Roadside Picnic, was filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky as Stalker (1979).
The Strugatskys had trouble getting their work past the Soviet censors and there has been an attempt since their deaths to interpret them as pro-Western dissidents. What is often overlooked is that, while they were both anti-totalitarian and anti-Stalinist, they were also socialists.
Boris put their differences with the Soviet regime very clearly:
“We were being governed by goons and enemies of culture… And if for us communism is a world of freedom and creativity, for them communism is a society where the people immediately and with pleasure perform all the prescriptions of party and government.”
Hard to Be a God is a story about a group of historians from a future socialist Earth observing daily life on a feudal planet. The historian Anton has adopted the disguise of the warlord Don Reba and is transmitting scenes of a palace coup back to his colleagues on Earth as it unfolds before him.
Anton is under a proscription not to interfere in the planet’s political and social development. He has access to technology that makes him a god in comparison to the planet’s inhabitants but he is bound to sit back and watch as anyone who’s literate or cultured in any way is slaughtered by the superstitious locals.
It serves to remind us that progress in history is painfully slow and each advance is to be treasured. It also reminds us of Karl Marx’s insight that “social being determines social consciousness” as Anton, surrounded by filth and bloodshed, regresses to the level of the planet’s inhabitants.
Hard to Be a God looks fantastic. It’s shot in crisp black and white, with many scenes evoking the paintings of Pieter Bruegel and Hieronymus Bosch. But it’s also three hours of an unremittingly filthy feudal society.
It opens with a scene where an old man accused of literacy is drowned in an overflowing privy. The rest of the film is filled with mud, shit, guts and blood.
In concentrating on such a bleak picture of a feudal society, German loses grip on the narrative completely. Had I not read the book I wouldn’t have had a clue as to what was happening on screen.
The film is visually in a class of its own but Hard to Be a God is hard to watch.