Hard to be a God- You've never seen anything like it!

Posted 4 August 2015 about Hard to be a God.

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The phrase "You've never seen anything like it!" is somewhat overused in regard to cinema nowadays. Spectacular CGI visuals abound with every new Hollywood blockbuster looking to outdo its predecessor with spectacular special effects. But, isn't it all getting a bit boring? What about a film whose imagery, although stunning and truly epic in its scope, uses very few digital effects but instead creates an absolutely convincing representation of life on an alien planet by actually building sets, designing completely convincing costumes and having the actors practically live in them for several years whilst principal photography takes place? Well here it is, Russian director Alexei German's final film,Hard To Be A God; an incredible twelve years in the making during which time its creator passing away before post-production was finished and the film finally completed by his son, Alexei German Jr.

The film, an adaptation of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's science fiction novel of the same name, is set on the distant planet of Arkanar where a group of scientists from earth have been sent to observe the society that exists there. The planet is in a state similar to earth in medieval times but due to superstition and fear its development has stalled with literacy, medicine and culture punishable by torture and death. One of the scientists, Don Rumata, begins to despair of the violence and degradation that surrounds him and it is increasingly difficult for him to obey the strict rule not to interfere with the development of Arkanar's society. He therefore finds himself on a fateful course that will lead to an inevitable reckoning with the instigator of the repressive inquisition, the all-powerful Don Reba.

As a piece of science fiction the film is completely unique. There are only the merest hints and reminders that we are not actually on earth in the Dark Ages; we hear (or think we hear) snatches of recognisable tunes being whistled by the scientists; Rumata plays bebop jazz on a clarinet-like wind instrument and, just once, we glimpse a motorised armoured vehicle trundling through the mud. The film is an uncompromising and completely immersive experience, often shot in extreme close-up with objects constantly obscuring the frame; the production design is so authentic and tactile that you feel you can almost smell the excrement, urine and blood that the film's characters wallow in. These cluttered and claustrophobic scenes are then suddenly interspersed with truly horrific vistas of mass executions and torture that are worthy of Brueghel in their detailing of human suffering.

It is therefore, not a film for the faint-hearted. However, if you caught any of last year's Red Planets season of Soviet science fiction you will be enthralled by this astonishing piece of filmmaking which will, in time, be seen as a landmark in the history of cinema. Alexei German made only six films in a career that spanned almost forty years and little of his work has been seen in the west outside of festival screenings; it is to be hoped that, with the release of Hard To Be A God, we might now get the opportunity to see more of his work.

Oh and you will have never seen anything like it…ever.

Martin Carter

Principal Film Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, Martin regularly gives lectures and courses at The Showroom Cinema in Sheffield.Read more posts by Martin Carter

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