In Alexei German's great and terrifying film about Stalin's death, Krushtalyov, my Car!, there is a sequence in which the film's protagonist, a prominent Moscow neuro-surgeon, is arrested and, then, locked in a fetid champagne truck with a mob of convicts. As the truck lurches over muddy roads taking the prisoners to the Gulag, the convicts repeatedly sodomize the film's hero. German keeps the camera very close to the atrocity and the convicts are burly brutes with shaven heads -- as they rape the protagonist, they leer at the camera and grimace and slobber, saliva sluices from their jaws. The whole thing is horrific, a claustrophobic nightmare of degradation. German's last film, Hard to be a God, is ostensibly science fiction, a story set on a nearby planet trapped in the dark ages, a place "where there was no renaissance" as the main character tells us in a voice-over in the first scene. Hard to be a God is 177 minutes long and the entire film is like the scene in the champagne truck in Krushtalyov, a first-person tour of a hell filled with torture and grinning, deformed demons that seems scarcely wider than an elevator shaft. Whether this is an advance on the historical horrors depicted in Krushtalyov or an epic, demented exercise in sado-masochistic self-indulgence is the fundamental question posed by German's last film, a movie on which he worked for most of his life and that seems to have literally killed him -- the exertions of shooting the movie in the Czech Republic and, then, at LenFilm in St. Petersburg, and the nine or ten years required to edit the thing into its final form (much work done while German was on a IV drip) resulted in his death; the movie was ultimately completed by his wife and son. The resulting film was premiered at Cannes in 2013 -- most of the audience walked-out but those that remained were convinced that they had seen a film literally like no other.
At the very end of Hard to be a God, a child remarks that he has been blessed -- he says that Don Rumata, reputed to be a god, has spit on him. The spit of a god is thought to confer health and well-being. This sequence occurs about 175 minutes into the 177 minute film. It explains something that has both perplexed and disgusted us -- throughout the film, Don Rumata has been constantly spitting -- at least, fifty times, we see him spit directly into someone's face or hand. It is diagnostic of German's approach to film-making that the meaning of this gesture, crucial to an understanding of what is happening in the movie is withheld until the very last minute. German spares his audience no difficulty. Like many of the films of Godard, the movie imposes every possible problem on its viewers: we are cast into an infernal society without any guidance; plot points are made so obliquely that we don't know that something important has been communicated to us until much later, if ever; generally, we hear voices off-screen, but we are almost never shown who is speaking; the screen is thronged with horrific grotesques doing terrible things to one another -- the imagery is radically fractal: if someone is being tortured in the foreground, the same thing is happening in the background as well, at the edge of the screen, or in the remote distance, and, by infinite regression, it is suggested that this torture is, more or less, universal. As the film progresses, it becomes literally harder and harder to see what is happening -- in some of the early sequences, there is a horizon and we can see snowy landscapes, albeit darkened with torture wheels and sulfurous fires. As the film progresses, the shots become tighter and tighter: huge leering close-ups dominate the image and the environment becomes ever more murky -- things are hanging down from above, dead animals, or bits of meat, or sausages being cured and these objects block our view of the proceedings. The screen becomes more and more occluded, more densely congested with horrors until, at last, a sort of limit is reached. Don Rumata responds to the murder of his concubine, a girl with a shaved head and a pasty white complexion, by deciding to kill everyone in sight. For a long time, he has contemplated murder as the only just response to the mayhem around him. But the sight of the dead girl, an arrow through her neck, bleeding interminably into the mud and excrement on the floor causes him to don his gear and go forth to war. (No one in this film has any emotions other than disgust and sadistic anger -- hence, I was surprised to hear German in one of the extras in the film say that Rumata's rampage is caused by his love for the dead girl: in most of their scenes, he slaps her around and repeatedly spits in her face.) We see Rumata in extreme close-up rummaging among the squalor of his chambers, immense heaps of fabric and armor half-buried in piles of shit and mud -- throughout some of these scenes, white down or feathers seem to constantly rain down sticking in the grease and slime covering the skin of everyone in the film. (In an unwittingly funny line, Rumata condemns the girl's housekeeping a few minutes before she is murdered -- he says something like "You ought to clean up this house", a statement so fantastically understated in light of the filthy reeking midden in which he is living -- and everyone else as well -- that it is inadvertently hilarious; it would take a front-end loader, a hundred men, and a thousand days to clean up the Augean mess in which Rumata lives.) Rumata finds that mice are living in his weird armor. When he gets the rig on, only after extraordinary effort, he has to go on all fours and has horns like a bull -- it's impossible to imagine that he could kill anyone dressed in this ridiculous get-up. But the imagery is extraordinary, a nightmare from Picasso -- a great bull standing in the muck as the screen swirls with fog and mist. Rumata slices open the belly of one of his enemies -- gore is always pouring out of people's torn torsos. For some reason, Rumata's slaves crucify the dying man on a shattered door, so caked with shit and debris, that it is impossible to decipher the shape or boundaries of the man's body -- he is just an assemblage of rotting garbage. Then, Rumata rips open the body some more so that an avalanche of entrails splashes into the filth, the man's heart still obstinately beating amidst the carnage that has been made of him. The screen goes black and, then, the camera simply tracks back and forth in the knee-deep mud, showing innumerable corpses, fragments of limbs, heads, everything drowned in mud that is like the mire that we see in the Shrewsbury battle scene in Orson Welles Chimes at Midnight. The movie has reached the point where it shows us nothing but piles of mud and close-ups of corpses for a couple minutes -- this the film's anti-heroic way of representing the massacre that Rumata has inflicted upon the wicked people of Arkanar.
In an interview, German said that the planet of Arkanar, a place where the Renaissance had never happened, represents Russia. He went on to say that the images in the film are supposed to show that the corruption and foulness of life in Putin's Russia may be doomed to induce a repetition of certain grisly aspects of that countries history -- when the filth reaches a certain stage, then, a strong ruler arises to purge the scum and institute a totalitarian regime of virtue. On the disc, German proudly shows us one of his sets -- in fact, the set in which Rumata's concubine is killed. Filmed in color (the movie is in black and white), the set is richly ornamented -- it looks like something from Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings. German proudly comments that it's better than anything that an American crew could make, more complex and detailed. And, yet, in the film, the set is flooded with sewage, heaped chest-high with garbage to the point that none of the finely wrought details can be seen. Similarly, German's argument that the film is a parable about Russian history seems rational, even persuasive, until you see the movie. Hard to be a God is so ridiculously excessive that it defeats any rational explanation.
Since Hard to be a God is very difficult to follow on first viewing, and since I hope you will see this film, I essay a plot outline. (If you want to figure out the film on your own, then, don't read this summary -- I'm sure that some of it is inaccurate in any event) The film starts in an drizzly Autumn, like Melville's "November of the soul." We see a snow-covered village under the walls of Don Rumata's castle, a picturesque and haunting image in which a dark moat or lagoon seems to open like a great void into the earth. Voice-over tells us that the Grays are rulers have castles and that these noblemen are hunting down "bookworms" -- that is, literate people -- and slaughtering them. We see a woman -- in this film, noblewomen are dressed like clowns, have bald heads, and faces painted white as geishas. Don Rumata is one of the explorers who has landed on this planet thirty years ago -- he is apparently forbidden from interfering in the planet's affairs although, in the first scene, when he awakes he has dreamed of killing everyone. There is a turtle that lives in his chambers crowded with armor and an infestation of mice eats his leather gauntlets. Rumata claims that he is a son of Goran, a god, born from the god's mouth. Rumata practices his clarinet or tenor sax -- the sound of the instrument is torment to his slaves who put paper in their ears to avoid hearing him. In two early shots, we seem to be seeing through some kind of circular lens. Rumata wears a diadem on his forehead and, I think, I have read that, in the novel, this is a miniature camera that records what he sees. As in Krushtalyov and Ivan Lapshin, my Friend, German flirts with a first-person narrative, seems to take pains to even establish that perspective, and, then, bewilderingly, abandons it -- that is what seems to happen in this film as well although the gesture is covert: I counted only two shots through the camera mechanism although, to be sure, there is probably about an hour of feverish Steadi-cam first-person footage in the film. Slaves have bald heads and have their necks locked in a kind of wooden tablet-sahped stocks. A book is burned and an elderly, demented bookworm is drowned head-first in a privy. We learn that Irukar is where Rumato lives is surrounded by noisome swamps. Rumata has a bad knee and wants medical attention. He seeks his doctor, Budakh, by traveling to several places -- possibly Arkanar, the center of the federation, although this isn't clear. Someone has synthesized alcohol, but Rumata smashes the still -- apparently, a commentary on the destructive effects of vodka on Mother Russia. At Arkanar, or wherever Rumata has gone, he meets several other scientists (Earthlings) who are similarly stranded on the planet. They are part of the original expeditionary team. The other scientists get drunk with Rumata. They don't exactly inspire confidence -- most of them have gone native, wear outlandish costumes, get their legs caught in boor traps, and stagger around drunk citing poetry, apparently Pasternak. In one startling image, a big Mad Max-style truck hauls a flatbed on which two of the Earthling scientists mimic playing rock and roll. We learn a local expression: "stolen by the Siu bird" means irretrievably lost.
We are introduced to a hunchback lord, Don Arata. I don't really understand this scene or where it takes place. Rumata does sleight-of-hand tricks seemingly to persuade the locals that he is a god. But a number of people don't think he is really divine.
Back at Rumata's castle (this is hard to determine because there are no establishing shots), Don Reba comes for a visit. Reba brings another doctor, not Budakh, apparently a quack. We see that Rumata has taught a slave how to play a kind of primitive French horn. Servants grow some kind of edible fungus on dead dogs. There is a Holy Order nearby. Rumata seems to have been poisoned by the elixir provided by the quack doctor and he passes out. The Grays and monks enter the castle. There is a repeated reference to a "tobacconist from a tobacco shop" who is a wise man. (I have no idea what this verbal motif means.) The Grays are threatening Rumata and say they will send her to Tower of Joy -- some sort of place of torture that everyone fears greatly. Rumata tells one of his slaves that he has "the strongest fangs", showing him the bull-armor with horns that he will wear at the end of the movie. Rumata's mistress wants him to make love to her so that she can bear "a son of Goran". She hangs a grinning gorgon-style image of Goran over their bed. But it falls on them while they are copulating. (There is a funny scene of her wriggling out of her iron chastity belt -- she needs a slave with a crow-bar to pry her out of the thing.) Sex in German films rarely works out -- beds tend to collapse or onlookers show up (not a problem on this planet where people defecate and have sex in public).
We see an exterior by a misty river and a long Tarkovsky-style tracking shot, very beautiful and complex, with ragged beggars jeering and making faces at the camera. Outside of a tavern, Rumata encounters the Baron. The Baron fancies himself the empire's best swordsman. Rumata gives him some lessons with his sword. The Baron comments that Rumata is a failure as a swordsman because he never kills anyone. There is a weird violent quarrel about whether fish like milk. The Baron continues to brandish his sword.
The scene shifts to an exterior shot of a column with a cross-bar. The wooden assembly looks like a Christian cross and German, who is a believer, lingers for a long time on this forlorn object. (It seems to stand at the entrance to Rumata's castle.) Outside the castle, Rumata is threatened by someone. He pulls the man's nose off and, then, doesn't know what to do with the mucous on his fingers -- ultimately, he wipes it on the wounded man's cloak. Much of the violence in the film has a Three Stooges quality -- people are constantly hitting or gouging one another. However, in this film, the violence has real and awful consequences, inflicting ghastly wounds. Rumata goes into the castle and meets a wet nurse who seems to be suckling the "prince" (Rumata's son? -- I don't think we ever actually see the boy.) A siege begins. A door is knocked down using one of the women as a battering ram. Rumata confronts the armed men and, with no difficulty, beats them all back -- everyone yields to him and cowers. As he advances through the castle, however, he is entrapped in a net and, then, hauled around wrapped in rope. The leader of the force attacking Rumata's castle is Kussis. Almost immediately, Rumata's dependents butcher him and cut their leader free. A fat old knight who is one of Rumata's lieges, shows bones and a skull to his boss -- he remarks that these are the bones of the real Don of the castle and, if Rumata, was that man, he would now be 105 years old. (Throughout this part of the film, people keep suggesting that Rumata is not really a god and that there is something fishy about him.) Don Rumata has fought 186 duels but never killed anyone, only cut off their ears -- this also seems suspicious.
Rumata talks to the Vicar of the Order from Beyond the Seas, one of a number of fanatical monastic orders that seem to be springing up. The Vicar seems to know that Rumata is not a god and says that the people are lapsing into heresy -- that is, beginning to deny Rumata's divinity. An army of iron-hatted troops associated with this Order surround the castle. (Typical of this film is that German provides us with a spectacular view from the ramparts of the army below lit by torches investing the castle -- but nothing really comes of this vision: there is no battle and the invading army melts away.) Rumata catches one of the mice that are tormenting him and eating his armor; with Three Stooges elan, he drops it down a slave's shirt. When he leaves the castle, he comes upon scores of people, probably mostly book-men, who have been hanged -- this slaughter includes women and children. It also appears that corpses have been thrown into the well outside the castle to poison it. (The hanging corpses have some kind of sticky broth or oat meal ladled over him so that they are featureless, suspended bodies covered in goo.) Rumata frees a slave. Someone warns him: "He's been on the chain since he was three and he'll die." Upon being cut free, the slave promptly insults Rumata, runs a dozen or so feet and, then, dies. Monks surround the castle, herding people around with nooses on their necks.
Rumata goes to see a Baron in a neighboring castle. The monks and religious fanatics have taken over the place and are killing whores by strapping them to wooden frames and, then, driving huge wooden phallus between their legs tearing them apart. (German doesn't show us this, just the gory machines with a whore wearing the so-called "hat of sorrow", a dunce-cap, waiting to be killed.) The priests are flogging everyone and one of the interiors of the castle is dominated by the flabby, well-beaten and bloody buttocks of someone suspended over a barrel -- we never see a face associated with these buttocks. Rumata finds the Baron in a cage. (I think this is the man that Rumata earlier discussed swordsmanship with.) Rumata frees the Baron. He also finds the doctor, Budakh, Rumata tries to leave the castle now occupied by religious fanatics with Budakh and the Baron. The Baron departs on his own on horseback and is immediately shot full of arrows. We see his corpse in the rain lying face down on a pile of rotting garbage -- someone throws turnips on top of the dead body. (Exactly how Budkah and Rumata escape is unclear.)
Back at Rumata's castle, Budakh has trouble passing water. Rumata wants to get advice from Budakh but he is occupied with his painful, intermittent urination. Rumata's castle is now occupied by religious fanatics. Budakh, at last, tells Rumata that the obligation of a god is to "punish the cruel." Rumata himself prays to God and says that "if you exist, blow us away, destroy us in our cruelty." He no longer needs the saturnine and self-satisfied Budakh and releases him. The monks who now infest Rumata's castle are under the command of a nasty hunchback, Arata. The god Goran likes cripples, the hunchback maintains. Arata's henchmen are abusing Rumata's servants and have even killed two of them. Arata is menacing and, obviously, doesn't mistake Rumata for a god. He suggests that he'll kill Rumata so that he "can fly off to your daddy"-- referring to Goran. "It's hard to be a god," Rumata says. They are in the part of the castle devoted to slaughter of animals and wrinkled sausages hang from the ceiling while beheaded cattle look on impassively. When Arata threatens him again, Rumata pours boiling water on him and strikes him -- as always, Rumata's blows, even if lightly administered, knock down his enemies; this is a curious aspect of the film -- whenever Rumata attacks someone or a group of adversaries, they become curiously passive and simply wilt before him. Rumata revives Arata and threatens to kill all vermin. Budakh is naked, walking around the castle seemingly applying his medical skills to inventing new ways to torture people. Rumata tells Budakh and Arata that if, indeed, he kills them all, it will be meaningless -- new generations of equally loathsome oppressors will arise, "there will be a new Arata".
Budakh takes a bath. The scene shifts to Rumata's barn. Apparently, Rumata and his courtiers have been displaced from the castle by the interlopers led by Arata. (Here we see one of German's estrangement techniques -- the camera shows us a huge cylindrical object, tattered looking at its edges, all scuffed and marred, but, apparently, alive; it turns out that we are looking at the side of a cow.) Rumata's mistress is in the barn and says that they should all flee. She is pregnant. Rumata delays saying a "god can't flee without his pants" and he can't find them. Rumata is eating some sort of porridge when the barn is attacked and the pregnant woman killed -- shot through the face by an arrow. (This sequence is typical: we don't know who is attacking or from what location -- the camera tracks the protagonists so tightly that there is no context for their motions or the events that occur to them. The menace is never visualized as "external" -- it is always close-up, intimate, lethal danger that is within a foot of your face. When we see a danger clearly visualized, for instance, the horde of soldiers surrounding the castle, there is no attack.) Rumata arms himself, appearing on all fours like an enraged iron bull. He tells god that "if you exist, stop me." A warlord named Arima enters the castle, boasting that he is the Eye of the Order. His minions begin to mistreat and kill Rumata's servants. Rumata kills Arima and disembowels him to "find the monster's heart." He, then, massacres everyone in sight. The massacre is not shown only its aftermath.
A child prancing among the mangled corpses says that Rumata has never left Earth: the imagery of the film is the product of insanity ("you're in a nuthouse on Earth") or a brain tumor. Rumata is sitting in a big mud-puddle with a chicken. Another earthling, Pasha talks to him. Rumata pronounces the moral of the work: "Where Grays triumph, Blacks always come in the end."
A snowy exterior: Rumata has shaved off his hair and trimmed his beard and is now wearing glasses. He takes out his tenor sax and with a servant who plays a kind of French horn, performs a kind of melancholy blues-jazz tune. A wagon rolls up carrying the corpses of Don Leonardo and Don Fatso -- these were two of the scientist from Earth. Rumata with his procession wanders off-screen. A little girl and a tall scarecrow of a man are walking on a path through the misty, snowfields. The little girl asks the man if he likes the music Don Rumata is playing. "I don't know," the man says. The little girl replies: "It makes my tummy heart." Some horsemen pass by and the movie ends.
This sprawling, disorderly, and enormously lengthy film is also remarkably repetitive. The first time we see Rumata he has been dreaming of killing everyone around him. The character doesn't advance beyond that stage and the "heart of darkness" credo: "exterminate all brutes!" doesn't change in any way through the film's 177 minutes. (In effect, the film is a variant on Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" -- Arkanar is like the Congo, a place where madness and cruelty prevail. The difference between the works is that Conrad imagined Europe, although complicit in the darkness, to be a place where conventional humanism kept brutality in check, although Marlowe, to be sure, notes that even the river banks of the Thames were once one of "dark places" on Earth, at least as far as the Roman colonists were concerned.) Hard to be a God, offers nothing in opposition to the savagery and filth on screen. The movie esthetic is, at once, simple-minded and effective: to persuade the viewer that Rumata should "exterminate all brutes", the film simply immerses the movie-goer in Rumata's point of view -- in that respect, the length and repetitiveness of the film is necessary, although it's a device that brutalizes the audience as well. The movie's black and white photography is exquisite and the medieval squalor has a picturesque quality -- some critics have made comparison with the Monty Python comedy about the quest for the Holy Grail; in its excessiveness, Hard to be a God is often inadvertently funny and the comparison with the Monty Python movie is a reasonable one. The film's fantastic mise-en-scene is indescribable and the movie may be enjoyed, I suppose, for its fanatical and brilliant attention to detail and the sheer grandeur of many of its sequences. (In one extended take, Rumata wanders through one of his filthy, claustrophobic, and immensely crowded chambers to enter a dark room, possibly a stable, and a big white owl appears suddenly to perch on his shoulder -- how many hundreds of takes did this require?; after the massacre, Rumata sits in a bloody pool of water and a flock of little birds emerges about midway through the minute-long take, flying upward apparently from somewhere underground. How was this accomplished?) The problem with the film is that we live in a world, perhaps unlike Russia, in which the Renaissance did occur and, therefore, is it reasonable to insist that men are irretrievably savage and cruel and that best fate for humanity is to be exterminated? Krushtalyov, My Car, I think, is a much greater film and I also prefer My Friend, Ivan Lapshin. Film making is a profession that involves much grandiosity and there is no doubt that Hard to be a God is spectacularly grandiose, the product of a kind of megalomania in the director, an improbable vision executed with fantastic conviction. But is it a vision that anyone reasonably would desire to endure?