Hard to be a God, Dir. Alexei Guerman, 2015
The first thing that hits you when you see Hard To Be A God is that it is one of the most grotesque, grimmest depictions of humanity you’ve ever seen. Indeed, it practically revels in gore, bodily fluids and viscera of all sorts. There is almost non-stop gobbing of phlegm and snot as well as fecal matter dropping from the sky. Disgust is definitely on the agenda, but it’s not simply to be shocking in a John Waters type of way. Instead, it evokes a sense of disgust toward the depravity and degradation that humans will sink to under a repressive regime. Toward the beginning of this film, a poet is marked for execution and it will happen by drowning him in a public cesspool. You would think this would be a total turnoff, instead, Guerman manages to lure you in with lush, beautiful black and white images of a hallucinatory landscape that is both repulsive and mesmerizing. This appears to be director A.Y. Guerman’s way with allegory and his relentless flogging of how grotesque and unjust life was in Soviet era Russia — certainly the specter of Stalinist/Soviet repression is dyed in the fabric of this entire story.
This is a story of total subjugation, of unrelenting abuse of power, of extreme hopelessness and abject misery and denial of one’s own existence. The central figure in this 3 hour epic is Don Rumata, a nobleman of sorts, but most of the populace treat him as though he is a god. He is however, a kind of observer, a scientist from earth, sent to oversee the activities of an otherwise chaotic and severely repressed world, which looks suspiciously like earth in the middle ages, but the Renaissance never happened. His approach to all this is to immerse himself in his surroundings and attempt to influence the course of events against enormous odds which he treats with a combination of contempt, amusement and abject indignation.
Hard to Be a God isn’t just any film, but an entire world that has been created and put on film. It is a hypnotic kaleidoscope of images that feel loose, almost documentary-like, but is actually very rich, very carefully and thoughtfully crafted, shot by shot, movement by movement. To see “Hard to be a God” is not simply to go to the movies, it’s a film EXPERIENCE that you rarely get to have anymore: It is like the first time you saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in a theater. It’s like the first time you saw a Tarkovsky film. It’s like seeing Touch of Evil, or Vertigo for the first time: you realize you are seeing something extraordinary, something great.