Hard to Be a Witness

Leonid Yarmolnik in Aleksei German’s “Hard to Be a God.” | KINO LORBER

Leonid Yarmolnik in Aleksei German’s “Hard to Be a God.” | KINO LORBER

It’s hard to be a god, according to the title of Russian director Aleksei German’s posthumously released film. It’s also hard to be a filmmaker, and that was especially so in the days of the USSR. Then, state support for unconventional work jostled with censorship of it. Two of German’s six films were banned for varying lengths of time.

After the fall of communism, the free market’s censorship set in, a force as strong in the US as in Russia. As a result, Americans couldn’t see German’s 1998 final-days-of-Stalin opus “Khrustalyov, My Car!” beyond one-off festival screenings. “Hard to Be a God” would be a difficult film under any circumstances, but it benefits from knowing German’s oeuvre. For one thing, while his films generally don’t resemble each other, “Hard to Be a God” builds upon the immersive nightmares of “Khrustalyov, My Car!,” taking them much further.

Unless one has read brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s source novel or seen the film several times, the narrative of “Hard to Be a God” is hard to follow. The premise and some of its events remind me of Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court.” Scientists from Earth are living on the planet Arkandar, which suffers under a dictatorship in a period roughly equivalent to the Middle Ages. No one is allowed to read or write, and the scientists are supposed to hold back from influencing Arkandar’s politics and history. However, Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) is recognized as an outsider by the residents of Arkandar and treated as a god. He tries to act like one, leading to complications.

Aleksei German’s swan song travels to another planet to plumb depths of 20th century Europe

“Hard to Be a God” had an unusual production history. We’re lucky to be able to see it within two years of its completion. German wanted to make it as his debut film, as far back as 1964. His solo debut was instead the 1971 “Trial on the Road” (also playing in a three-film German retrospective alongside “Hard to Be a God” at Anthology). The events of 1968 ensured that it would be very difficult to adapt the novel under communism.

In a freer climate, German returned to the project in the late ‘80s but then embarked on “Khrustalyov, My Car!” The production of “Hard to Be a God” lasted six years and involved building castles, and its post-production took an additional five years. German died before the film was completed. Its final post-production was supervised by his wife, Svetlana Karmalita (who also co-wrote the script), and son, Aleksei German, Jr.

An acquaintance reported that half the audience at the Museum of the Moving Image’s recent screening of “Hard to Be a God” walked out. It’s not hard to see why. Very few films are this accomplished; similarly, very few are so unpleasant. The sci-fi pretext is quickly abandoned. Essentially, this is Europe’s Middle Ages, with overtones of the Holocaust, and it makes Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev” look like kid stuff. German had an unusual knack for creating the sensation that the spectator is visiting a real place, aided here by his film’s 170-minute duration. First developed in “Khrustalyov, My Car!,” the approach bears full fruit here. I can understand why some people wouldn’t want to sit through a film that essentially amounts to Russia’s long-delayed answer to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salò.”

“Hard to Be a God” might be unwatchable if rendered in low-fi shakycam. Thankfully, the black-and-white cinematography is lush, even when depicting filth and ugliness. (German used two different cinematographers, but their work blends seamlessly.) Almost the entire film consists of Steadicam tracking shots that move alongside the characters, probing among them. The camera gets very close to the actors. In his most audacious move, German had characters periodically speak directly to the camera, if not the audience. However, the pacing is deliberately wearying: it replicates the sensation of being trapped on a train for hours. “Hard to Be a God” does not move quickly.

German philosopher Theodor Adorno famously declared “No poetry after Auschwitz.” In the field of cinema, this has generally been interpreted to mean that one shouldn’t depict the concentration camps directly in narrative cinema. “Hard to Be a God” holds up an indirect mirror to the worst of the 20th century via the Middle Ages. It may be unpleasant to watch, but despite technically being science fiction it’s powerful and real.

HARD TO BE A GOD | Directed by Aleksei German | In Russian with English subtitles | Kino Lorber | Opens Jan. 30 | Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Ave. at Second St. | anthologyfilmarchives.com