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June 29, 2015

Hard to be a God

hard to be a god 1.jpg

Trudno byt' bogom
Aleksei German - 2013
Kino Lorber BD Region A

Throughout Hard to be a God, I felt like I was caught in the midst of a painting by Pieter Breugel the Elder. The density of people and details sometimes was overwhelming. Yes, the era depicted in German's film is a few centuries earlier that the scenes in Breugel's work, but there is, for me, an undeniable similarity with the cramming of people and animals within a limited space. The faces, especially, are remarkably like those found in Breugel's paintings.

Only rarely do you come across a face that might be remotely photogenic. There's snot and grime on most of those faces. Some of the teeth, if someone has close to a full set, look like the sharp set from the mouth of an animal. The film takes place on a planet that is similar to our own, but the civilization, such as it is, resembles that of a small European village in the Middle Ages. With almost constant rain, the streets are essentially muddy trails. It's impossible to not be streaked with mud and shit. Dirt and disease seem to be everywhere.

A group of scientists visit the planet primarily to observe life, but end up being involved in the political conflicts that prevent the possibility of a "renaissance". The science fiction aspects are set aside quickly, so that what is seen is a story of intrigue captured by a periodically acknowledged omniscient camera. The camera follows the action, sometimes seeming to be lost in crowd, sometimes having the field of vision partially obscured by some bit of bric-a-brac, hanging nearby. The only indication that one of the men is from a more contemporary time is when he plays a jazzy tune on a clarinet type instrument. And the basic premise goes against the more familiar stories of scientists, or the humble "Connecticut Yankee" sharing their magic with those relying on more primitive technology.

Aleksei German spent about six years simply in the filming. And there are far more details than can be absorbed in a single viewing. Another five years was spent on the editing, which was completed under the supervision of German's son and wife, screenplay collaborator Svetlana Karmalita. Some of the delays were due to German's own ill health. The legendary fastidiousness of German makes Stanley Kubrick look slap-dash in comparison.

There is an accompanying documentary, partially about the making of Hard to be a God, but also a look back at German's career. The glimpses of his previous work makes me hope that German's previous five films become more readily available. A booklet that includes a statement by German, and essays by his son, Aleksei German, Jr. and Aliza Ma, of the Museum of the Moving Image, help provide greater context for both the film and the filmmaking.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 29, 2015 08:21 AM