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Hard to Be a God: A Study in Feculence

Posted by The Bay Area Crew, July 20, 2015 06:15pm | Post a Comment

Hard To Be A God

by Rebecca Burgan

On the planet Arkanar, identical to Earth but stuck 800 years behind, grey castles stand entrenched in a beastly sea of mud and oomska. Arkanar possesses a medieval civilization, but there is no Renaissance, only fog, squalor, and decay. Scientists arrive to help this culture of humans who have not evolved from an existence of baseness, sickness, and eternal rot.

Be sure to have a settled stomach before embarking on Hard to Be a God, the final masterpiece by visionary Russian director Aleksei German. The Strugatsky brothers, Arkady and Boris (authors of the source novel for Tarkovsky’s Stalker), originally requested that a director of Soviet origin, preferably Aleksei German, direct a version of their Russian science fiction novel, Hard to Be a God. After the brothers’ disappointment with Peter Fleishmann’s 1989 film adaptation, German took on filming beginning in 2000, though he had been planning it for decades, and nearly finished it before his death in 2013. German’s wife and son put the finishing touches on the film allowing it to finally be unleashed onto the world.

Hard To Be A God

This is the most grotesquely filthy film you have probably ever seen—a veritable Bosch or Brughel nightmare come to life, chock full of relentless dripping, fecal mud baths, suffocating fog, blood, mud, rain, putrefying swamps of bodily fluids, demonic horns, monstrous faces, and more mud. A sensation of near panic washes over you, yet you can’t look away, not for the three long hours of brutal submersion.

This film is a slog to get through, but if you appreciate its sublime grotesquery, the slog is more of a vicarious one as you travel with the impeccably choreographed characters who are literally slogging through knee-deep mud. The muculent fog, through which you can barely make out the surreal figures, systematically reveals a terrifying scenery, hanged bodies of freethinkers and “bookworms,” flapping genitals, severed oozing heads, rotting fish, whimsical instruments, and babbling drunkards swirled in smoke and stench.

In this arresting nightmare you feel the feculence with every one of your senses. The visual chaos is merciless, yet so exquisitely orchestrated. The camera nervously swings through each scene with true verite as if it is a stranger physically stepping into the lurid spectacle. The POV is left unestablished and sways between that of our own innocent eyes and that of an off camera entity that receives nods and glares from the characters through the fourth wall. There is always someone or something moving right in front of the camera, whether a person, a sword, a blanket of fog, or chicken feet, making your line of vision constantly interrupted and manipulated, almost flinch-inducing. German never allows his viewers to relax or even let down their guard. The film is one incredibly long scene that never stops its frenetic dance.

Hard To Be A God


The soundtrack is a clamor of medieval jazz instruments, dripping fluids, snorting, choking, hiccupping, and loogie hocking. Everyone appears to be trapped in a lifelong influenza spell, as long streams of thick snot bob up and down from their wet faces. The characters frequently sniff things and observe the dreadful stench. Ironically the people creating this planet-sized sewer are the ones complaining about how bad each object reeks.

The undercover scientist, who is regarded here as something of a god, is meant to observe the civilization and not disrupt its balance. He searches for intelligent life, but we learn that these people destroyed their university along with any remaining intellectuals. Even among groups of brethren, cruelty and affection seem to be only vaguely distinct, as they nostril-grab and face-slap in a single love/hate aggression.

We view a terrifying hazy dystopia of a human race that is twitching and tweaking itself to death in a hellish muddy cesspool. Watching a dissolved society with no hope can be a comment on many savage and despondent eras from mankind’s past, but more frighteningly it speaks to the notion that we are not so far evolved from this. If you think you can handle the stunning depravity, merciless cruelty, and the evisceration, oh the evisceration, then belly up to this unforgettable all-you-can-eat nightmare buffet.

Hard To Be A God

Relevant Tags

Film (176), Aleksei German (1), Strugatsky Brothers (1), Andrei Tarkovsky (4), Sci-fi (51)