And if you could give advice to a God? If he asked for it?

Hard to Be a God ( 2013 )

  |   Aug. 13, 2018

"Hard to be a god" represents a labour of love for Aleksey German. Based on a 1964 novel by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, it follow the efforts of a group of scientists from Earth to steer a much less advanced alien world towards progress. German first became interested in making a movie about the novel in the years following its release, but it was complicated by political situations in Russia, as well as by the release of a separate 1989 adaptation by German filmmaker Peter Fleischmann. In fact, it would be decades before production would start and he died in the final stages of video editing, without ever seeing it come to the screen. The final version was finished by his family, including his son, Alexsey Jr.

The alien world, named Arkanar, is, according to our narrator, about 800 years behind Earth in development, and is realising its own medieval period. The suppression of a renaissance and persecution of all intellectuals (the "wise men") leads to the rise of a fascist state, and the possibility of a very different and dark path for this world. The scientists, including our main protagonist Anton, who masquerades as a god-like figure known as Don Rubin, attempt to wave a light hand over proceedings to steer a route towards progress. However, as Anton remarks, it's hard to be a God.

Arkanar is an exceptionally cruel place, full of grotesque and deranged characters. It's a world populated by sadistic masters, squalid peasants and feral children. Our own unease is amplified by the director through intense close-ups and wild and arresting camera movements. Life means so very little here. It's taken for no reason at all, and in the cruellest ways possible. Sometimes it feels like death is a relief for the inhabitants of this world. Anton can't help but be affected by the baseness of it all, and he falls deeper and deeper into the medieval nightmare, until we are left to wonder if he is capable of returning to Earth.

Hard to be a God is not an easy watch, and its almost three hour run time is challenging. Despite the relentless activity in every scene, it moves at a slow pace and the plot is only vaguely outlined throughout. Leonid Yarmolnik is superb in the lead role and German builds an all-too-realistic world. It won't be everyone's cup of tea, but it stands as a fascinating and unique exploration of the bounds of human misery and cruelty.