The first thing I saw when I arrived in the Netherlands for this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam was a glossy print of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, blown up and sprawled across an arrival gate wall. It took me a moment to realize, through the muddle of encroaching jetlag, that this was not some token of Dutch iconography designed to boast of local culture to tourists. Instead, it was an ad for biscuits, a box of which had been cannily penciled into the corner of the frame. What was extraordinary was that, despite the advertiser’s best efforts, the beauty of the painting wasn’t diminished by the snack food crammed into it. It suggested an axiom that would prove true by the end of the festival: Great art can survive anything.
The legacy of the Dutch and Flemish masters seemed to loom over my time in Rotterdam, perhaps only by coincidence. But it struck me as somehow significant that the greatest film I saw during the festival should be so conspicuously informed by their influence. Based on a novel published in 1964, first adapted as a screenplay in 1968, shot intermittently between 2000 and 2006, and painstakingly assembled until the day of its director’s death in February 2013, Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God finally premiered, literally half a century in the making, at the Rome International Film Festival in November. At Rotterdam, its unceremonious and sparsely populated press screening on the first Saturday evening was nevertheless the definitive event of the festival. Few attended, and many who did walked out. But those who remained enjoyed the privilege of experiencing a masterpiece firsthand.
Hard to Be a God is an adaptation of a well-known Russian science-fiction novel by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who also wrote Roadside Picnic, the book on which Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker was based. The Strugatsky story concerns a group of men in the near future who discover a planet identical to Earth as it was 800 years ago; they attempt to surreptitiously ingratiate themselves among its inhabitants, forbidding themselves from using their knowledge to accelerate this alter-Earth’s development. Stranded on this familiar alien world, the travelers become the gods of the title: men doomed to trudge eternally through the muck of a backward civilization, advanced but ineffectual, possessed of peerless intelligence but resigned to suffer history anew. It’s hard indeed to be a god.
German unloads all this context in a few lines of expository narration at the outset of the film, more or less abandoning the specifics of the Strugatskys’ story and retaining the setup only as a platform from which to speculate about the nature of the human condition. The film plays out like a period piece in which the hero is an anachronism: He wanders the place as if he’s been teleported back to the fifteenth century, adopting the manners and conventions of the day as a pretense of normality while occasionally quoting modern literature or hammering out a bit of jazz. That hero is Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), esteemed by those around him as a merciless warrior and apparent descendant of a deity, and nearly every second of the film’s 177-minute running time is spent in his intimate company — meandering through squalor, claymore in hand, impatiently eyeing those around him, and occasionally lopping off a head.
Despite the apparent breadth of the world he’s created, German favors claustrophobic close-ups and tight, cramped medium shots in closed spaces, sticking uncomfortably close to Rumata as if the camera were some skittish companion afraid of leaving his side. This strategy impresses upon us an acute sense of physicality. Every object shoved before the camera has a tactile quality: the dripping carcasses we’re forced to scrutinize; the swaths of raw material that often pop up or hang down to impede our view (German is particularly fond of having his roaming camera stop directly in front of dangling lengths of rope or chain, so that we’re left to peer around the sides). Curiosity, at first, is the natural reaction; a world this strange, and this vividly realized, can only be explored with eagerness. But soon the ugliness wears on you. German wants to drag us through this until our curiosity is thoroughly drained, replaced in turn by weariness. Hard to Be a God, by design, is not a dynamic film. Its consistency is intended to be exhausting. Over time, like Rumata, we’d rather be anywhere else.
Rumata’s curse is that he must endure a pain forever on the verge of relief without ever finding it. This world, it happens, is at the cusp of its Renaissance, when civility will begin to win out over perpetual barbarity. German’s trick here is to suggest that it may not happen — that instead the savagery of the Middle Ages will last forever. The film thus becomes a thought experiment asking us to consider what society and culture might look like had the Renaissance never ignited. The muck and filth and shit of medieval existence might continue uninterrupted, a reality that over the course of the film certainly seems plausible. German seems less interested in the science-fiction dimension of the source material than in the central idea it poses: the Renaissance was a fluke. Cruelty and brutality are the default modes of existence. Barbarism is human nature. Barbarism, in German’s conception, is an intensely visceral state. So foul and fetid is the world of the film that you can practically smell it. There are obvious cinematic precedents for this sort of plague-ridden putrescence — Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal and Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh + Blood, certainly, but also the more playfully scatological Monty Python and the Holy Grail — but my mind went first to the Renaissance work the film’s alternate history would deny. German was a Russian filmmaker, but the artists to whom his style here seems most strongly indebted are Dutch: the harried sprawl of Bruegel, the group portraiture effects of Frans Hals, and especially the fantasy horrors imagined by Hieronymus Bosch. Watching Hard to Be a God often feels like wading into the Hell panel of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights; it seems that everywhere you look you find a mass of writhing bodies suffering grotesquely in the mud. And, as in Bosch, what’s striking in Hard to Be a God isn’t the horror but the ubiquity of it — something terrible is happening everywhere all the time.
When the Strugatsky brothers conceived of their novel, this fantasy had rather striking political associations. The misery of cultural regression, of an enlightened few forced to brave a world without art and culture, no doubt reflected life under the Soviet Union, where campaigns to cleanse the state of radical thought proved a singular hardship for its remaining intellectuals. In the 50 years since its publication, the cultural context of Hard to Be a God has changed considerably, though it isn’t difficult to imagine the criticisms marshaled in the film leveled against Russia’s contemporary oppressions. At a time when homosexuality is criminalized and protesters are whipped and jailed, accusations of barbarism don’t feel dated.
Still, there is something about Hard to Be a God that seems to defy allegorical readings. Perhaps it’s that it has a certain timelessness, a universal scope that transcends any particular modern reading. The film strikes me as concerned not so much with the state of Russia today (or the state of Russia in 1964) as with the state of the world, now and always. In a way, German has inherited more than the iconography of the Dutch masters; he has inherited their greatness.
And, like the snack-selling Vermeer ad that greeted me upon arrival, Hard to Be a God has a greatness that should still radiate no matter what uses to which it’s been contorted. The film is a battle cry against those who seek to snuff art out of the world, a call for us to not slide further back into our natural barbaric state. It tells us that whatever the threat, culture is only our only weapon against an endless deluge of muck and filth and shit. And it reminds us that, though all of it, great art must survive.