HARD TO BE A GOD: The philosophy of shit

Hard to Be a God (film)HARD TO BE A GOD
directed by Aleksei German
Village Voice: ‘Brilliant Russian Film Imagines Humanity Without a Renaissance’

I spent three hours covered in black-and-white mud and shit at HARD TO BE A GOD. Should’ve walked out after one.

It’s based on a 1964 novel that sounds fascinating and philosophically rich. “The novel follows Anton, an undercover operative from the future planet Earth, in his mission on an alien planet, that is populated by human beings, whose society has not advanced beyond the Middle Ages. The novel’s core idea is that human progress throughout the centuries is often cruel and bloody, and that religion and blind faith can be effective tools of oppression, working to destroy the emerging scientific disciplines and enlightenment.” (Wikipedia) Anton, known in the alien world as Don Rumata, comes to realise that although his advanced understanding of society accords him godlike qualities, he is hamstrung by the low beliefs of those around him. What a quandary: to know how to alleviate people’s suffering, to feel obliged to intervene, but to know any intervention can only at best offer temporary relief. The struggle for knowledge and improvement will rage on, punctuated by faeces and entrails, and you are powerless to do anything but watch.

If only the film had stuck more closely to these lines! Instead, the philosophy is virtually absent as German insists on keeping his camera at the level of the sodden, shit-stained dirt. Scenes unfold incoherently as Don Rumata staggers from one set of filthy, snot-ridden characters to another, none of whom is meaningfully distinct from the others — at least, as far as I could tell. German’s shooting style relies heavily on long, unchoreographed takes and features wavering focus, an insistence on close-up rather than wide angle cinematography, and regular, indistinct intrusions into the foreground of the frame by otherwise unseen characters and objects. At no point are any concessions made to an audience’s expectation for plot or character development; it is all base elements, mud and bodily functions and weapons. For three hours, and in black and white for good measure, lest anything capture our attention or imagination.

The point may be that we, the 21st Century audience, are equally powerless observers to the horrors of history. A good point, if so. And I’ll never feel more like I’ve spent three hours in the unenlightened Middle Ages, nor more appreciative of modern conveniences. But the point is laboured, and every element of the film remains out of most viewers’ grasp. The society Don Rumata inhabits is called Arkanar; fitting, as HARD TO BE A GOD is arcane in the extreme.

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