The world of “Hard to Be a God,” a sci-fi film decades in the making and only completed after the death of its visionary Russian director Aleksei German, is inescapably fetid and squalid. Everybody spits—and almost constantly. They spit straight down on the ground when they’re walking outside, or even when they’re inside. They spit when they smell something foul, which is often. The ground is a filthy, muddy bog in either location. Stagnant puddles are just as likely to contain urine and feces as water from the steady rain showers. Various bodies—chicken, geese, dogs, foxes, swine, and no shortage of humans—hang from spits and walls and ceilings, in various states of decay. And while bites or sips of things are sometimes savored, they’re just as frequently expectorated onto the floor, into the air, or into the face of whomever is nearby. And they often follow the spitting by blowing snot across the room too.
“Hard to Be a God” tells the story of a group of 20th-century Earth scientists sent to study a nearby, Earth-like planet where its civilizations remain 800 years behind our own. The film is nearly three hours long. And after watching it twice, I’m not entirely convinced I have a firm grasp of its plot. I’m not sure if I have any sophisticated understanding of its ideas. And I can’t tell if I even like all that much. But let me be quite clear: I have never seen anything else quite like it.
That the film is winding into theaters now is an epic saga all its own. German is a passionately esteemed but underseen Russian director in the West. His World War II film, 1971’s “Trial on the Road,” is as indelible as Elem Klimov’s “Come and See,” and is better known for being banned in the Soviet Union for 15 years than for its story about a traitor transformed into a hero simply because of whose side he finishes fighting for. In addition to “Trial,” his 1998 black comedy, “Khrustalyov, My Car!,” is the only other of German’s six films I’ve seen prior to “God,” and it was so overstuffed with political and literary allusion that I only comprehended it in retrospect after gaining a better, though still superficial, grasp of Stalin-era Soviet Union.
I confess the above to highlight that there could be layers to “Hard to Be a God” that I simply don’t recognize. The film is based on a popular 1964 novel of the same name by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the sci-fi team of brothers whose “Roadside Picnic” was turned into Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker.” “Hard to Be a God’s” production notes say that German wanted to adapt the Strugatskys’ novel in the 1960s, but political life kept stalling the project. He finally started shooting the film in 2000, and continued over the next six years in the Czech Republic and St. Petersburg, Russia. German died in 2013 before he completed post-production, and “Hard to Be a God” was finished by his wife and collaborator Svetlana Karmalita and their son.
Knowing all that doesn’t entirely help you navigate the film, as it immediately plunges you into its foul world. A voice-over provides back story about the nearby planet and the scientists’ presence, but German, his cinematographers Vladimir Ilyin and Yuri Klimenko, and production design team (Sergei Kokovkin, Georgi Kropachev, E. Zhukova) make it impossible to ignore that “God” is not any place you recognize. People—deformed, missing digits and teeth, all dirty—scurry like animals through dirt roads, dank castle alleys, and the muddy grounds. It becomes clear that the written word, and the people who can read, are being singled out for elimination. One way to do so is by burying these “intellectuals” alive in shit.
Through this disgusting world wanders Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), one of Earth’s interplanetary ethnographers. He occasionally gets together with the other observers in some remote area to get hammered and talk about what they remember of their lives on Earth. Most of the time they rule over the small kingdoms of this planet, treated like wise men. Dom Rumata has been watching his peers become cruel tyrants, and wants to do something about it—or as much as he’s allowed to do anything about it.
“Hard to Be a God” documents Rumata’s arduous, quixotic efforts, in a curiously documentary-like mise-en-scène. “God” is shot in black and white and seemingly exclusively hand held and entirely in deep focus. There are no changes of perspective (no zooms, wide-angle lenses, etc.). The camera always seems to stand about adult-height from the ground. And stuff keeps getting in the way of what we see—things (tools, torches, carcasses) hanging from the ceiling, the body parts of people in the scene, the disfigured faces of people, who constantly look directly into the camera. It’s unnerving, the insistent way everything stays in focus in this dirty void and the way the people in the movie keep staring back. The result is a hallucinogenic, transporting claustrophobia: We gain an appreciation of the observers in this world, who cannot affect or escape it.
The word “masterpiece” has greeted “Hard to Be a God” since it first started being seen last year at festivals and now in its limited release; I wonder if that’s where the brain goes when it doesn’t know how to process what it just experienced. Make no mistake: After a century of cinema it’s very rare to come across something that appears to have no antecedent. And the film may very well be a masterpiece that I’m ill-equipped to recognize. All I know is that “Hard to Be a God” is hard to understand, and even though it still feels incomprehensible, it’s even harder to forget.