HARD TO BE A GOD is an insane film.
Here’s the deal. In the future, scientists from Earth are inserted into a humanlike society on another planet to observe it. So far, so Star Trek, right? It’s based on a Strugatsky Brothers novel from 1964. The Strugatskys were brilliant — you’ve heard of STALKER, based on their ROADSIDE PICNIC. Anyway, this guy is inserted into the place as Don Rumata, a regional ruler. And he and his fellow observers are their to study a society in a permanent medieval dark age, where an Enlightenment/Renaissance never seems to happen. It’s a stuck culture.
Because it kills anyone who learns how to read and write.
There are no framing shots of Earth. We’re immediately immersed in the medieval village, in all its muck and slime. I have to note that it is beautifully shot in monochrome, with a deep, rich range of greys. I should also note that if it were in colour it would be even more astonishingly gross. The past was pretty disgusting, and HARD TO BE A GOD really wants you to know exactly how disgusting.
The camera is an extra in the crowd. It pushes its way into scenes. Characters look into the lens. Into our face. Because, as Don Rumata is a secret observer from Earth, so are we.
With a big, eccentric and charismatic turn from Leonid Yarmolnik in the lead, we lurch and stagger through this terrible, time-locked world that kills its brightest, leaving it to the depredations of the venal clubs of mediocrity.
Director Alexsei German’s films were mostly about the Stalinist era, and it’s not hard to see HARD TO BE A GOD as a Stalinist allegory. I was, here in 2019, also put in mind of recent comments about “the end of the expert” and “the death of expertise.”
The film is an immense experience, sometimes exhausting, often awesome, always surprising. And caked in muck. There’s nothing quite like it. You would appreciate it, I think. It needs to be seen.