The Planet Arkanar may seem inhospitable to the outsider, but a group of just such outsiders have indeed settled there, aliens from Planet Earth who were there as a scientific party but became caught up in the society they found and installed themselves as unofficial rulers of the region. However, this is a place where science and learning are shunned by the populace, for they have never undergone a Renaissance and live in a permanent state of medievalism, and as if that were not bad enough they actively hunt down anyone who might be considered a scholar, or even intelligent, and murder them in gangs. There are not many of these learned folks left, but one of the scientists, Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) is stirred into action…
Ah, Russian science fiction, where to start? Not with Hard to Be a God, that’s for sure, a well nigh impenetrable item of densely packed fantasy which the director Aleksey German worked on for over a decade before expiring just as he was about to complete it. It was finally finished by other hands (his wife and son) who took care of the editing, and unleashed it on the world who reacted to it with bafflement, assuming you hadn’t already read the source novel by Arkadiy and Boris Strugatskiy in which case you’d have a head start over the casual viewer or otherwise interested viewer, and also assuming you had even contemplated watching a three hour long, black and white, often revolting experience that may leave you none the wiser coming out of it than going in.
What it came across as was a succession of long takes assembled into one continuous stream of filth: these characters lived in mud and frequently expelled their own bodily fluids and excreta as if it was going out of fashion, which here was not apparent when everyone was spitting, pissing, snorting out mucus and if that wasn’t good enough, splashing other people’s blood around as if there were no tomorrow. For most of the characters there wasn’t, as it built up to a huge massacre, yet even before that they were dropping like flies on Arkanar as a war between the Greys and the Blacks seemed inevitable, an endless cycle of mass violence that everyone simply appeared to accept as part of life.
Essentially, if you were seeking comparisons to get a handle on this chaos, it was like a cross between Idiocracy for the general anti-intelligence air, and Jabberwocky for the setting, the barely past the Dark Ages milieu that drenched every shot, although you could additionally observe a similar work in something like Begotten, though this was achieved on a far higher budget as there was lavish scenery purpose built for German to stage his madness against. If you were looking for clues as to what the meaning of all this was, it was perhaps less a damnation of modern life turning against clever bastards, and more what to do to herd these burgeoning numbers of morons for whom destruction and self-interest to the point of insanity was a way of life, and we look to Don Rumata for that.
He has established himself as master of all (well, some) he surveys by communicating to the legions of locals in the only language they understand, or at least the only one they respect: force and brutality, so he is renowned as the finest swordsman in the land and seizes every opportunity to prove himself in that. However, we don’t get any sort of Errol Flynn swashbuckling, it’s more a series of thuddingly unsubtle actions to ensure his dominance, all crafted in this ambience of disgust in the most tactile fashion imaginable for a film, though there’s nothing here anyone would want to lay a finger on at any time. With such an aggressively unpleasant work there was some badge of merit to be had by staying the course and reaching the end, and that sense of achievement may be enough for many audience members, though for most there were only so many shots of trudging through mud, heads being gored and backsides bared before you began to ponder quite what it was you were getting out of this, never mind what it said about theology. Music by Viktor Lebedev (though there’s not much of it).