The final film of Russian director Alexei German — which was 12 years in the making — immerses viewers in a reimagined Middle Ages. “I don’t think any film has ever depicted a world so awful with such conviction,” Gabriel Winslow-Yost writes of “Hard to Be a God” in The New York Review of Books.

Winslow-Yost continues:

It is, ostensibly, a work of science fiction, adapted from the novel of the same name by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (whose books were also the sometimes tenuous bases for Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Alexander Sokurov’s Days of Eclipse, among many other Russian films). A group of scientists travel from a futuristic Earth to Arkanar, a planet much like Earth and inhabited by humans, but which is “about eight hundred years behind” in its history, still trapped in the Dark Ages; the scientists are forbidden from interfering in Arkanar’s historical development and, especially, from killing.

In fact, nothing of the future-Earth or any advanced technology is ever seen. German uses the sci-fi setup simply to unmoor this Arkanaran rendition of the Middle Ages from any recognizable history, and to make it much, much worse. The literate and intellectually curious—or “wiseguys,” as they are called—are hunted down and executed as heretics. Throughout the film, we see them hanging from gallows, their bodies decorated with tar and sequins, or roped two-by-two into a kind of monstrous, force-marched caterpillar, or, in one case, simply drowned in a latrine.

The film’s plot, to the extent that one can be made out through the gloom and filth, is the slow unraveling of the main character, Don Rumata, played by Leonid Yarmolnik, who is one of the visiting Earth scientists, though he no longer appears to do any research. Ensconced as a powerful local lord (and rumored to be the illegitimate son of a god), he attempts to resists the ongoing anti-rationalist pogroms and is drawn into a murky war between two vicious, barely distinguishable factions, the Grays and the Blacks. Rumata eventually manages to rescue one of the most learned Arkanarans. The crazed, half-naked “wiseguy” remarks that a man’s skin is full of holes; it takes a moment to register that this gibberish is actually true, and another to realize that it is for exactly such harmless knowledge that he has been tormented. But as the conflict deepens, friends and members of Rumata’s household are slaughtered, his attempts to wheedle and bluster fail, and finally, after his mistress is killed, he gives in, breaks his vow, and fights.

“Hard to Be a God” is playing at the Anthology Film Archives in New York City through Feb. 8.

Read more here.

— Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.


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