Tag Archives: Aleksey German

LIST CANDIDATE: HARD TO BE A GOD (2013)

Trudno byt bogom

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Leonid Yarmolnik, Yevgeni Gerchakov, Aleksandr Chutko

PLOT: In Earth’s future, scientists are sent to the planet of Arkanar – a world with a society similar to Earth’s Middle Ages. While their directive is to observe and have only minimal involvement, one scientist wearies of the unremitting squalor and violence and decides to try to change things.

Still from Hard to Be a God (2013)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Watching Hard to Be a God, the phrase “unremitting nightmare” springs to mind. While this phrase is often both hyperbolic and over-used, here it works nicely as a description. The gray and black images of cramped, filth-strewn hovels and hallways are unceasing, and the accompanying soundtrack of spits, snorts, sniffs, coughs, and groans lead to a very weird and very unpleasant movie.

COMMENTS: With his final movie, Soviet /Russian director Aleksei German grabs the viewer by the throat and shoves him face-first into the putridness of a world that is best left eight centuries in the past. Hard to Be a God follows in the same stylistic vein as his prior film, 1998’s Khrustalyov, My Car! There is no color, just sickly hues of stained white and gray; there is ambient confusion in every scene, as background events play out, sometimes passing right by the camera; and the story is so loosely explained that without the anchoring of the handful of voice-overs, all sense of narrative flow would be lost. This final point is worth noting, as the crippled sense of development in the story neatly conveys the development that occurs (or, doesn’t occur) on this ghastly planet.

A narrator immediately establishes that “this is not earth, but another planet.” He goes on to explain that a Renaissance had nearly happened on this planet, but was nipped in the bud by reactionary thugs of both the royalist and religious persuasion. As a consequence, a handful of scientists (from the planet Earth) are semi-abandoned in this mud and filth-stained pit of humanity. All the scientists are men of stature within the society they are observing—the main character, Don Rumata, is even purported to be a descendant of one of the old pagan gods—but with the burning of the universities and hanging of the men of learning, they are doomed to watch as the civilization stagnates and stagnates.

Before watching this, I had never so enjoyed the “color” of white. The grit and muck that covers everything (faces, hands, clothes, walls, floors… everything) is pervasive. Every time Don Rumata uses his lily-white handkerchief, or drops it on the ground as a gift to a passing peasant, one of the few strands of beauty the movie contained disappears. The world’s rains, described by the narrator as “short and sticky”, are just that. Everything is wet in a dirty, dirty way. Through the haze of dirt and mist, I was reminded of ; I struggle now to understand how he made nature seem at all beautiful. Even the traces of cultural progress in Hard to be a God are obscured by the rampant sludge; we see an occasional artisinal weapon, or perhaps a painting of great beauty, that has been left to absorb humanity’s filth.

By now I’m sure you can guess that I’ve exhausted my thesaurus of terms for “dirty”. The movie suggests the only hope this world has is if the observers becomes more proactive. Toward the end, Don Rumato snaps—quietly, as he does everything—and before an obliquely conveyed rampage, mutters to no one in particular, “God, if you exist, stop me.” What results remains unclear, but perhaps it is hopeful; at the very least it’s as hopeful a conclusion as one could expect on the planet of Arkanar. As Rumato confesses to one of the scientists before they leave him behind, “If you write about me, and you’ll probably have to, write that it’s hard to be a god.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It is grotesque and deranged and Hieronymus Bosch-like, and damn if it isn’t a bona fide vision—but of what, exactly?”–Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Onion A.V. Club (contemporaneous)

READER RECOMMENDATION: KHRUSTALYOV, MY CAR! (1998)

Reader recommendation by Giles Edwards

DIRECTED BY: Aleksey German

FEATURING: Yuriy Tsuliro, Nina Ruslanova, Mickhail Dementyev

PLOT: General Klensky, the head of a prestigious Moscow mental hospital in 1950s Soviet Russia, tries to evade KGB agents before he’s captured and forced to help the authorities in their last ditch effort to save a dying Josef Stalin.

Still from Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: With each cluttered frame stuffed with inky blacks and smoky whites, the nightmarish reality of Stalin’s last “Terror” makes for uneasy viewing as a nightmarish hellscape seeps ever more into the cruelty of the tragically mundane. This reality is made both more real and more unpleasant by the inclusion of the dissonant sound track.

COMMENTS: It took nearly a decade for Aleksey German to put together this ordeal of a movie about the last of Stalin’s great purges just before the demise of the Soviet Union’s ruthless dictator. The nightmare of pursuit lasts three days for the heavy-handed but sympathetic General Kensky, who rules like a benevolent counterpart to “Uncle Joe,” presiding over his medical facility in a cognac-fueled display of ordered madness. Surrounded by the grotesque (be it in the chaos of his hospital or the sinister order provided by the black-sedan riding apparatchiks), Kensky uncovers a plot to stage his fall from grace before fleeing to the home of a sympathetic former nurse. Disappearing at the hands of Stalin’s henchmen and being spirited away in the back of a “Soviet Champagne” truck, he meets with the bed-ridden, stroke-afflicted leader before his own disappearance is arranged for good.

The entire atmosphere of the film is made of deeply black blacks and sodium-light bright whites. Steam and disorder fill the interiors, while outside the tainted white of snow and dark sheen of the KGB’s cars make for an incongruous combination of the harshest of whites and darkest of blacks. Innocents are randomly round up (one unfortunate, in the wrong place and the wrong time, is unceremoniously dumped into the trunk of one of the ever-present black cars), and a fearful citizenry makes itself complicit with the state sponsored terror, hoping their compliance will direct the authorities’ suspicion and ire elsewhere.

What makes this movie weird is how it manages to capture society at its most grotesque. There are other movies that have individual images that are more troubling, but this film’s continuous streak of casual violence, cruel misfortune, and unsettling monotony of sadism in a fearful society grinds on for well over two hours of hyper-realism.

The soundtrack consists of oblique conversations continually interspersed with the sound of spitting, sneezing, blowing noses, grunts and all manner of human-noise unpleasantness. While no doubt this is realistic, the constant reminder of people’s bodily sounds makes the soundtrack seem more of a heightened reality: we see (and, more so, hear) humanity in all its discourteous glory.

German was a contemporary of (of Andrei Rublev and Stalker fame). But whereas Tarkovsky saw the grittiness of reality and transformed it into a primordial poetry that bordered on spiritual, German takes the opposite route and ground his films so thoroughly in the depths of the hellishly mundane, it is almost as if one is seeing and hearing Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”, but without the “Delight” (or even, for that matter, the “Garden”).

This movie was finished just before the Putin era began: made between the early and late ’90s, along with a number of other introspective post-Soviet Films. One becomes weary in the soul watching the hell this doctor and patriarch goes through in the name of the grisly interpretation of Soviet idealism that was Joseph Stalin’s Russia. The ostensibly uplifting movement of Soviet Realism in film is given a punch to the gut in this vision of nightmare turned into real-life.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One of the most disturbing Russian films of all time, Khrustalyov, mashuni (Khrustalyov, My Car!, 1998) provides the audience with a firsthand experience of the madness, paranoia and absurdity that pervaded Moscow during the final days of Stalin’s regime.”–Greg Dolgopolov, Senses of Cinema