During his career, Soviet and Russian director Aleksei German often focused on politics and criticized the Soviet government through elaborate metaphors. Another significant feature of German’s style is found in his exploration of the complexity and duality of human nature in the unusual circumstances of civil war, guerilla warfare, political repressions, or science-fiction. His final picture, Hard to be a God, was released posthumously in 2013, and is perhaps the most famous work of the director. The film deals with complex moral issues and explores the notion of honor from the conflicting perspectives of scientific progress and an individual’s moral compass.
The film deals with the protagonist, Anton, who is part of a group of anthropologists sent to study the distant planet of Arkanar, where the population is stuck in the early Medieval Ages. Anton, or Don Rumata (as everyone on the planet refers to him), has assimilated to the ways of life, taking on the persona of a noble Count in order to observe and record the evolution of the people and culture, while attempting to preserve the little knowledge that is left in the totalitarian state by helping writers and scientists to escape. However, there is one specific rule that Don Rumata has to follow—under no circumstances must he kill. Hiding behind the honorable progressive ideals of the scientist, Anton can maintain a distanced attitude towards the inhabitants of the decaying planet. But as the narrative progresses, his mental protection weakens, revealing the moral and ethical dilemma of being a ‘God’.
As someone who grew up in Russia and is particularly interested in the works of Aleksei German, I have always admired his ability to work under the constant pressure of censorship, as well as his unwillingness to follow government-imposed cinematic guidelines. To me, Hard to Be a God is a representation of Aleksei German’s artistic honor and his dedication to work (though tragically, the film had to be completed and released by his son and crew after his death). The initial script, developed in 1968 alongside the co-author of the original book (Boris Strugatsky), was rejected by the Soviet government due to its controversial subtext. Shelved for 30 years, Hard to Be a God had been finally altered and the filming process began in 1999, taking 7 years to film and 7 for post-production. The new version of the film focused primarily on individual honor and its deterioration, rather than serving as a commentary on the political state of the country. Precisely asking the viewer a question: Is it hard to be a God?
Due to the constant delays in German’s process of creation, there have been other attempts to recreate the infamous novel. Aleksei German was offered a part in a 1989 German-Soviet co-production, which he refused as the film did not quite represent his vision of the story. The film did indeed focus on the science-fiction blockbuster genre, exploring Medieval cruelty from the distant perspective of spectacle—resembling a Russian alternative to Lynch’s Dune (1984), rather than a remake of the original novel.
German’s intention was to submerge the viewer into the atmosphere of chaos, abjection, and confusion, while still focusing extensively on realism. The film, made in black-and-white (a signature of German’s style), emphasizes the grey and hopeless reality of Arkanar, a planet that is stuck in a decaying state under the control of religious fanatics. The hand-held camera’s constant movement, reminiscent of documentary-style filmmaking, serves as both a reference to the book and an attempt at a realistic representation of Medieval times. Throughout the film, the protagonist is seen wearing an elaborate headset that records the life of Arkanar by the means of a camera installed in one of the gems. The lack of soundtrack, with dialogue being constantly interrupted by other characters’ voices and screams, submerges the viewer in the atmosphere of cultivated realism.
Hard to be a God is a performance of what an authentic Medieval world could look like through the tools of documentary. Both close-ups and wide shots aim to make the viewer uncomfortable by presenting everything that’s abject, creating both mesmerizing and revolting pictures. The only sane and rational voice in the film is the narrator, who serves as a reference to the literary origin and provides necessary context for those who are not familiar with the works of the Strugatsky Brothers. The constant, subtle references to the original book combined with German’s artistic vision are perhaps my favorite part of the film, as they reflect not only the precision of the author, but are able to transmit the most important aspect of the book—the question of morality and honor.
The works of the Strugatsky brothers are always focused on the kind-hearted protagonist whose belief system is questioned in the oppressive environment, and Hard to be a God serves as a perfect adaptation of the authors’ vision. The film specifically targets Russian viewers, who are familiar with the original book and the political parallels that are being drawn between Putin’s emerging authoritarian control over the Russian government and Don Reba’s control over Arkanar. While the film does primarily focus on the moral questions, it also serves as a morbid prediction of the current political state of Russia that is stuck, if not in the Medieval Age, then in the distant monarchical past.
In Hard to be a God, German represents a double consciousness of the protagonist. One has to distinguish between the personalities of Anton and Don Rumata, with the former having to follow the guidelines of scientific research and the latter listening to his humane moral conduct. Unlike his colleagues who have succumbed to drinking in the secluded community outside of the main city, Anton remains a professional who performs the role of the noble Count. The corruption of Arkanar’s lifestyle seemingly does not affect him in the first part of the film, as he is calmly fulfilling his humble mission of protecting the remnants of intelligence by saving writers and scientists. Through the successful masquerade of the rowdy Count, he is able to maintain his disguise and scientific work. Anton is a representation of both an unbiased scientist that carries out an experiment and a Biblical figure of God who is observing the people from a superior perspective, allowing them to solve their problems on their own. However, he develops a condescending and pitying attitude towards the unfortunate inhabitants of the planet. Anton is constantly juxtaposed to the crowd in the black-and-white world of filth, with his face lit brighter than the others.
The honor of the scientist in Hard to Be a God reveals itself to be a cruel irony, as it affects not only the people on the planet who could be saved from the dictatorship, disease, and civil war, but also the protagonist himself who, while being given God-like power and technology, is unable to use it. Specifically regarding Don Reba, a totalitarian and cruel fanatic, Anton recognizes and predicts the bloody consequences of him remaining in power. Even when confronted by Don Reba, Anton maintains his legend, altering it according to Arkanar’s belief system, and proclaims himself, if not the God, but a god-sent figure. Anton has an opportunity to kill the dictator in the early stages and eliminate the possibility of war and persecution, but remains loyal to his profession and continues to observe. However, unlike the anthropologists who deal with long-dead artifacts in the museums, Anton is under constant pressure to determine the lives of the people on the planet. His loyalty towards the progressive mission is perhaps the reason for the tragic outcome of the Civil War and the overturn of power.
There is another aspect to the character of Anton that reveals his humane side, as an ordinary person who has compassion and a moral compass, and to which I am going to refer as Don Rumata. Throughout the scarce dialogue in the film, one thing cannot evade the viewer—Don Rumata’s humorous attitude. Among the sea of people who are both mentally and physically scarred, Don Rumata appears the most normal due to his adequate speech and put-together appearance. He builds around himself the world within Arkanar, a world of close comrades, such as Baron Pampa, young servant boy Uno, and most importantly, his local lover Ari. Despite his close relationships with these people, Don Rumata does not reveal his real identity in an attempt to protect his constructed world. He has created a new reality within the Arkanar, one that has allowed him to maintain his humanity and morality through a certain degree of assimilation. His honor as a human being is revealed as soon as these people are gradually and cruelly taken away from him.
Firstly, Baron Pampa, who the protagonist saves from a torture chamber, and whose body is represented in a degrading way, lying naked and face deep in the dirt. Secondly, the servant Uno; a boy who is constantly looking into the camera, attracting the viewer’s attention, and is shot with an arrow. And finally, the breaking point of Don Rumata, the death of Ari in the hands of the protagonist, which triggers the final massacre. While the event itself is not revealed to the viewer, the camera carefully moves through the aftermath of the battle, presenting Rumata in a catatonic state. The protagonist’s desire to execute his revenge comes from his long-suppressed human honor and moral values. And while he is temporarily successful in hiding behind the scientific mission, the alter-ego of Don Rumata reveals the effects of the Arkanar environment and his fall from grace into violence.The main irony behind Hard to be a God is that Anton himself a subject for a study, an unknown participant in the new version of the Stanford prison experiment. While he unconsciously and blindly follows the directives, he is also observed and controlled by the scientists from Earth (who are quick to arrive as soon as he loses his anthropological lens). He is a tool at the hands of the Academic corporation, and as soon as his human honor reveals itself, he needs to be taken away for re-programming. The honor of the scientist that Anton believes in therefore proves useless, as it is directed and controlled by the head office. And while the honor of the human being and desire for justice prove to be an essential part of every person, it ultimately leads to tragic consequences and Anton’s descent into madness. Perhaps this is the message both German and the Strugatsky Brothers wanted to convey—as long as you are able to preserve your personal honor, you remain a human being in a world of violence and bureaucracy.