Last Friday I went to see Aleksei’s German’s posthumously released final film, Hard to be a God. This isn’t something that’d normally be on my radar. Rather, I went with a friend who is not just a cinephile, but a Russian cinephile at that. I think he had a better idea of what we were in for than I did, as what we were in for was bleak Russian misery for three hours. While it’d be easy to simply dismiss the film as unpleasant and leave it at that, it does possess obvious artistry and even occasional genius. I have no real background or expertise in film, so I can’t claim to analyze it with any particular rigor as a movie per se. I’m more concerned with the artistry of games, and it’s from that territory that I can interpret German’s work. What struck me is that it was actually more like a game than it was a film. Film is usually about telling or showing a story to the audience via actions, dialogue, etc. Games though, at least at their best, make the audience experience the story themselves. And Hard to be a God is definitely doing more of the latter.
German is in no way is concerned with telling you a story here. The plot is confusingly told with little explanation (and exacerbated by what seemed to be a bad translation in the subtitles). Characters seem to appear and disappear with no introduction. Their importance to the plot or relationship to other characters can sometimes be inferred, but is never explained. It’s almost like a Dadaist parody of a story. After three hours of storytelling, I could guess at only the faintest suggestion of what the plot was. What you do need to know is explained right at the beginning: This isn’t earth, but some distant planet home to a civilization at a Medieval stage of development. Our protagonist is an observer from Earth, studying the locals while posing as a demigod noble of Arkanar.
The environment is wet. Arkanar has short but frequent rain, torrential downpours which drench everyone and everything. When it isn’t raining, it’s foggy, humid and overcast. I don’t think we see direct sunlight in the entire movie, or it felt that way at least. It’s weather that is almost aggressively depressing. You can’t escape it either, even when the characters are indoors, the roofs leak. Coupled with this dreary wetness is filth. Mud, piss, snot, shit. It’s everywhere. The world is filthy, and a wet, rotting sort of filthy. A kind of filthy you can’t even clean because everything is already sopping wet. And it stinks- we know this because the characters say as much frequently, and when they don’t, we see them frequently smelling the air, objects, or eachother, with visibly disappointing results. No one is ever clean, or can get clean. Nobles are always being handed cloth handkerchiefs to wipe their faces or hands clean, but it never seems to work, and frequently we see the cloth they’re being handed has already been sullied in some other manner. All of this weighs on the viewer in a very visceral way: you can’t feel dry, clean or comfortable while watching this movie.
Then there are Arkanar’s inhabitants. They’re inept. Exasperatingly inept. It’s like a world of morons: from slaves to nobles, the people are uniformly terrible at whatever they’re doing. Every job is done sloppily, messily, stupidly. Servants trip, bungle, bump into their betters. Cleaners accidently hit people in the face with their mops. Nobles shove, push and hit these servants, but it never improves their behavior. Sometimes they even hit back. At first, this comes off as comical, but it quickly begins to wear on you. It’s a hell filled with the most inept idiots possible. And that’s where the horror is, because the locals are sloppy and careless with everything they do, which includes murder, torture and execution. We see guards drown a victim in sewage who hardly seem to care what they’re doing. Soldiers who arrest the protagonist grin and laugh. Every action, no matter how simple or horrifying, is done with a sort of impudent stupidity. You start to want to throttle these people, to make them take these things seriously. This is helped by the cinematography, which often positions the camera with objects or people obstructing the immediate foreground. It makes you too want to reach out and swat things away.
Which brings us to the most remarkable choice of the film, which is that the characters are aware of the camera. Well, the locals are- the protagonist and other Earthlings never seem to acknowledge the camera. But everyone else reacts to it. Sometimes they seem surprised by it, while others simply give blank stares of indifferent curiosity. Other times the locals grin, jostle and jeer for the camera, like yahoos at a stadium. Still others slap their asses at the camera in defiance. Others pose. Some hold up objects they seem to want the camera to see, like their hands, the tools they carry, or a pair of chicken legs. The camera doesn’t exist in the fiction though, so the choice seems baffling at first. But it gives the viewer a relationship with these people, because the fourth wall is a little hazy. It makes them seem like a primitive tribe in a documentary, or like bumpkins who can’t even be in a movie without messing it up. This has a two-fold effect on the viewer. Most obviously, it gradually becomes annoying, and you just want them to get on with it. It further reduces the empathy you have them. But secondly, it makes the viewer complicit in the world, and removes the safety that this is simply something you’re observing. They observe you, too.
Hard to be a God doesn’t want to tell you the story of being trapped on a primitive planet. It wants you to live it. It makes you as uncomfortable and hateful of the environment as the characters must be. It makes you feel unclean and in need of a bath. It makes you desperate to wash your hands. It makes you feel superior to the natives, and that superiority turns to hate. It makes their petty plots and stories incomprehensible to you. At the end our protagonist, a pacifist scientist here to study these people, has finally snapped. He proceeds to slaughter dozens of people. Bodies are piled up around him, and an urchin plays with their entrails. And as the movie closes, you understand him.
So for me, Hard to be a God fails as a movie, because it’s inscrutable, interminable and just hard to watch. But it succeeds as a game, in a sense, in that it asks the viewer to experience the story, rather than merely to hear it.