Hard to be a God is a testament to vision and persistence. German began a screenplay of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s novel Hard to be a God (1964) in 1967; Boris injected the piece with his own feelings on the political situation, but with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia the following year, work was abandoned. As German tells Anton Dolin in a 2011 book of interviews, republished within Arrow Academy’s booklet, he tried to take over Peter Fleischmann’s adaptation, Hard to be a God (1989), but was unable to negotiate as Fleischmann’s finances were already invested. Under Gorbachev’s relaxations, the film’s relevance seemed to have dissipated; German felt a national feeling of “the evil had been conquered”. German didn’t start production until 2000, shooting over a six-year period and editing until his death in 2013; completed posthumously through wife Svetlana Karmalita and son and filmmaker Aleksei German Jr.
German died considering himself a failure despite awards, producing only a handful of films within limitations of censorship; never achieving worldwide distribution or acclaim and suffering from depression. As he joked to Dolin, compared to a “severely beaten human being” or political prisoner, he was a “winner”. Shot on 35mm, the sheer scale of Hard to be a God is difficult to grasp, ostensibly science fiction but lacking few identifying characteristics besides its premise of a visitor to another world.
Hard to be a God is an exercise in worldbuilding, thanks to the efforts of designers Sergei Kokovin, Georg Kropachev and Elena Zhukova, and directors of photography Vladimir Ilyin and Yuriy Klimenko. Shot in castles in the Czech Republic and Lenfilm Studios in St Petersburg and recruiting numerous extras, Hard to be a God astounds. In the opening scenes, we feel distance: expositional narration offers a fairytale-esque glimpse, scientists gazing upon inhabitants framed by the circular lens. Rather than an escapist, futurist world, Arkanar becomes a reflection of our own history within the same genre as the swords and sorcery epics of films like Labyrinth (1986), series like Game of Thrones (2011-present) and multimedia franchises like Conan the Barbarian and Dungeons & Dragons. Though Hard to be a God lacks mythical creatures, it follows the same principle, just as steampunk refigures industrial technology into the future.
German coordinates mise-en-scène perfectly, creating a sense of the chaos of overcrowded streets, characters overlapping each other. German has less interest in narrative progression, without a clear journey: the film is circular, opening in snowfall by a black pool of water, ending in white snow as a man and a young girl walk by; people on horseback walking through the desolate landscape, the corpse of a dog hanging from a swing set. German’s worldbuilding is his philosophy: referencing Ivanov’s masterpiece The Appearance of Christ Before the People (1857), he told Dolin he would “rather create a single piece but a good one”.
As a medieval world trapped 800 years in the past, Arkanar’s Renaissance was forestalled by the repression of Don Reba, head of Crown Security, dissolving universities and its intelligentsia of “thinkers, smartarses, bookworms and artisans”, in war between Blacks and Greys. Reba is central to the film’s political commentary, drawing parallels between the Tower of Joy and the KGB; the Strugatskys foregrounded the novel within the repressions of the Soviet regime. Presented an award by Putin, German reportedly told him “the most interested viewer should be you”. Precepts become ludicrous: the world’s caste system, with slaves employed in tin mines, designate “gingernuts” as other, purely for the shade of their hair.
Arkanar feels otherworldly and anachronistic: the Renaissance exists as an alternative universe, references to Da Vinci, Baron Munchausen and a local tobacconist dropped throughout. Technology seems from another time and place, from spyglasses to an intricate flute that plays catchy yet equally as desolate blues music throughout the film that gives the young girl a “tummy ache” in the final scene. As a visitor, Don Rumata acts as a conduit to the contrast between this world and our world but with a Renaissance anachronism. Through the centuries, we feel distance from medieval life, unable to imagine what it must have been like. Perhaps the most successful vision of the degradation is Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), but it is still ultimately a comedy; German creates a world real and tangible. German wanted to “make a film with a smell”, immersing us within the Middle Ages “through a keyhole”. In Stalker (1979), adapted from the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic (1972), Tarkovsky created distance between science fiction and present reality through his industrial and natural landscapes to represent the Zone, grounded within our relationship with nature itself; Arkanar follows that same relationship. Natural elements are stark: a world of rain, fire, mist and swamps smothered in blood, alcohol and faeces, roses unable to distract from the disgusting.
German builds a terrifying vision of death. Bureaucracy relies upon torture; traders sell eyeballs; disembodied heads litter streets; rotting bodies hang from gallows, eaten by flies and marred by white splotches; poets drenched in fluid; disease spreads cholera and plague. It is a world of memento mori: Ruba handles the skull of a cow, before a young boy tells him it’s actually a boar. In an overhead shot, the Black Order march through the Land Beyond the Straits as premonitions, seen only in helmets and cloaks, a passing bird revealing the sheer scale. The precepts of the ordained authority of the Crown Security make fearing death itself a heretical crime. God’s existence becomes a constant act of debate: as a lone visitor attempting to shape the future, Rumata has a god complex, but in the Dolin interview, German argues he is only acting. God is dead, but Rumata asks God to stop him (if he exists), still debating whether there are souls or no souls. Frescoes create insight into the history of religious icons and the Arkanar Massacre itself, an event never directly glimpsed on screen.
Agrarian existence depends upon a relationship with animals. Eggs are held as produce; butchers handle animals; fish lay dead; cows, goats, hedgehogs, tortoises, monkeys and ducks walk through the frame; in close-up detail, we follow a horse in armour marching on. “May your donkey shaft you” becomes a visceral threat of violence. Sexuality runs rampant, one of the few things to entertain in a world where nothing seems to have any value. Naked bodies are as prominent as animals, filled with dicks, boobs and flagellation of butts. In the opening scene, we hold on a man defecating from an open window. Balls and bulges are fondled; German holds the camera on the oversized dick of a donkey’s. Bestiality is commonplace; rumours abound about a man having sex with a goose. Women become punished by archaic systems: abused by a solider, looking up her dress to determine whether she is a “gingernut”; burned at the stake as “whores”, with little to verify the authenticity of those slurs. German’s open use of sexual and needs driven bodies might seem to place him in the same category as Walerian Borowczyk, in the crossroads between high art, pornography and exploitation, but adds an additional layer of authenticity and reality to his world.
Almost the entirety of German’s films have documented Stalinist era history, shot in black and white. As he tells Dolin, two crimes were committed against cinema: the emergence of sound and colour cinema. German comments that he “see[s] the world in black and white”; colour is but a sensor within the mind. Black and white affords timelessness, placing Hard to be a God firmly within another era, its scale evoking the great Russian epics of Alexander Nevsky (1938), Ivan the Terrible (1942-44), Hamlet (1964) and Andrei Rublev (1966): nationalist mythmaking intersecting along exploration of faith, death and value systems.
Inspired by the scale and thematic exploration of Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, Fellini, Bertolucci and Bergman, by the end of his life German felt disengaged with cinema, becoming what he described to Dolin as “a spectacle for people who are too lazy to read”. Hard to be a God seems unmatched in its slow and contemplative 3-hour runtime. In long shots, the camera acts as a character within itself, never seeking to hide its presence. Extras walk up and look into the eye of the camera, watching out at us, performing to or avoiding as the camera catches their gaze. German breaks the fourth wall in much the same way as Tarkovsky did with Stalker, imagining the audience as participants and observers within this world. Largely avoiding close-ups, German allows us to examine the frame for ourselves and find our own narratives.