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Just How “HARD TO BE A GOD” Is It?

June 28, 2017

A spoiler-free appreciation of the great Russian film, ‘Hard To Be A God,’ by late writer/director Aleksei German (that’s Grr-men, with a hard “G”) released in 2014.

Ironically, myth has always been a fertile source for science-fiction. A culture’s collective mythology is a set of impossible-to-prove stories intended to explain why things are the way they are. At first glance, science fiction doesn’t seem like it works backward in that way. What can a tale of futuristic advancement explain about our origins? Like I said, it’s a little ironic.

Hard To Be A God Russia 2014

Movies and myth have always been a perfect match for one another. Just think about how many times the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral has been made into a movie (nearly two-dozen if you count TV). Why has that story been retold over and over? Primarily, because the official historical record is imperfect. No retelling can be proven wholly accurate, allowing different storytellers to riff on the story in their own way.

When you expand your gaze from the myths of the Old West to the myths of creation, now you are onto something. The exploration of a culture’s own creation mythology is also a relatively popular topic in SF circles (Prometheus comes readily to mind). Space exploration and the search of a higher power or life-form both brush up against mythology (think Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Tarkovsky’s Stalker) as well. Sometimes, good fiction is able to take an entirely novel approach to the mythical constructs we are familiar with.

Hard To Be A God is one such film. Released several months after the death of writer/director Aleksei German in 2013, Hard To Be A God examines what life might have been like had the Italian Renaissance never brought an end to the Dark Ages. A team of scientists has been observing life on another planet identical to Earth, with a dominant species identical to humans. This society, which has mirrored the development of humans on Earth, currently lags behind that of the scientists by about 800 years. That puts them, you guessed it, smack in the middle of their own Dark Ages period. Only thing is, this version of humanity has violently suppressed its greatest artists and thinkers, causing itself to unknowingly regress into a doomed societal state.

Armed with the knowledge of what will likely become of this brutal, uncivilized people, the scientists face the ethical conundrum of whether or not to intervene in the natural course of things by aiding the realm’s intellectual prosperity. The protagonist, a scientist posing as a nobleman, goes by the name of Don Rumata. There are other scientists undercover, like him, yet each consummately maintains their cover, determined to focus on supporting specific individuals, rather than embroiling themselves in the people’s politics more overtly.

The titular “God” has multiple meanings. As man of great means, Rumata is treated by some as a god, and even referred to as such. Not everyone respects his authority, but his standing in society as well as his leadership qualities are duly noted. Additionally, Rumata occupies an omniscient, god-like position of knowing what is to become of this society. He merely lives there, observing—a man out of time, and a god among men.

While Rumata didn’t create this world, these people, he does ostensibly have the power to change the course of their history. Should he lay his allegiance with the responsibility that comes with great power, or with scientific rigor?

In addition to being a first-rate premise for a science-fiction story, this holds extreme religious implications. In life, people often wonder aloud how God can exist if He allows terrible things to happen. In Hard To Be A God, Rumata holds a god-like capacity to create positive change in this world (though not necessarily his world) by standing up for the lives of the practically extinct intelligentsia. Would the actual god responsible for this existence do the same? Does Rumata’s presence make him God (like, God-God)? I won’t spoil Rumata’s actions, but watching this movie will perhaps cause viewers to wonder what it really means to be God, and to reinterpret what the world around us (the good and the bad) means to our own personal religious views.

With such a premise, the execution of the film’s visual qualities hardly seems significant. Fortunately, Hard To Be A God, in German’s hands, is a tremendous work and a striking artistic vision. A contemporary black and white film presented in the artisanal aspect ratio of 1.67:1, with long Steadicam shots that follow the characters through their world and generate little need for cutting, it simply doesn’t look like most movies made today. The sets are oppressively authentic in feel. Ample period detail is packed into every frame, and everything in each frame looks wet or muddy. There is no doubt that Rumata and his subjects lead gritty, Medieval lives.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of another story that inverts the primary theme of Hard To Be A God. That story is The Man Who Fell To Earth, both the novel by Walter Tevis, and Nic Roeg’s film adaptation starring David Bowie. God is the story of a man, an alien, really, with the power to change or not change the world around him. The Man Who Fell To Earth, on the other hand, is the story of an alien humanoid on Earth who finds himself at the physical mercy of a humanity that he is powerless to overcome, despite his vast intellectual superiority. Both deliver interesting perspectives on power dynamics, both find their protagonist in massively frustrating, even depressing scenarios, and both feature a dilemma born of a fundamental misunderstanding between species of differing capabilities.

While Hard To Be A God, may not have the benefit of David Bowie’s natural magnetism, it is still a great film, on par with 1976’s The Man Who Fell To Earth. It is intentionally heavy-handed with it’s symbolism and atmospherics, but its 3-hour run-time flies by. The resolution isn’t as clean as some may like, but any film that gives viewers this much to chew on, and with the credit of such a singular visual style, is well worth your time.

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