Discover Tuesdays / Gate Picturehouse

Discover Tuesdays: Hard To Be A God – Tue 22 Dec

Milana Vujkov, Marketing Manager at The Gate in Notting Hill, writes on this week’s Discover Tuesdays film, critically-adored sci-fi masterpiece Hard To Be A God.

Hard To Be A God (18)

Director: Aleksey German.
Leonid Yarmolnik, Aleksandr Chutko, Evgeniy Gerchakov. Russia 2013. 177 mins. Russian with English subtitles.

Hard to write about Hard To Be A God without first revealing its emotional impact, as it is more of an explosive device than a piece of cinema, and surviving it speaks volumes about one’s own need to make it to the end, no matter what the hardship. It’s a warzone of a film, and as with any situation of escalated conflict, it makes people act on instinct. Some flee immediately, some deny it until it affects them personally; others rush in and are devoured by the fire. A few try to understand, and that is the most dangerous thing to attempt – as it requires grasping the brutality of this world, and finding your peace in transcendent moments.

In this primal, grotesque, relentlessly macabre ceremony of blood, excrement and guts, the most lyrically beautiful, profoundly ethereal images slip in, like subliminal messages of grace, like fleeing revelations of a higher intelligence. Divine words spoken heal what seems to be irrevocably wounded, but then you are wounded again. And so it goes on, until the white encompasses the black, and dissolves all shades of grey. These are the only colours of this cursed universe, literally and symbolically- and if you are courageous and wise enough to see the film, you’ll appreciate this gentle warning.

Reviewers say it tests your endurance. That it does. More importantly, it tests your soul material. In many ways, it is the most important film of the century thus far. Its filming started in 2000, and lasted almost a decade, outliving its creator. Aleksey German directed it as if his life depended on the end result. He died never seeing it completed. His wife and son finished it for him.

What is this beastly angel of a film about? Other than life itself?

Based on a 1964 sci-fi novel by Arkadiy and Boris Strugatskiy, whose Roadside Picnic inspired Tarkovsky’s visionary masterpiece Stalker, the film transports us to an alien planet, nearly identical to Earth but 800 years behind our shining rock in civilization terms. Stuck in a perpetual Dark Age, it is unable to illuminate the redeeming colours of the Renaissance, as it routinely devours all hints of intellectual dissent. A group of 30 scientists travel from Earth to this horrendous place, to infiltrate its population and bring about progress, discreetly, non-violently, as observers – without intervening in what seems to be a ceaseless orgy of evil and ignorance. We follow one of them – Anton – and his journey from detached dandyish nobleman, playing his saxophone amidst the squalor, to adored and reviled local god in search of his own divinity, to angel of death, dispensing swift judgment, unable to suppress the volcanic eruption of wrath when he is finally personally scarred by the senselessness of unenlightened existence.

The film almost plays like a documentary – on Europe’s Middle Ages, or any modern depravity on Earth for that matter – with its crammed-up frames, its lost souls making eye contact with the audience, its stench, misery and desperation emanating from the screen like a radioactive fugue.

If it were not for its entirely exquisite nature, astonishing craft and unyielding sense of mission, it would be unbearable to watch. It is a revelation, a catharsis, a celluloid Armageddon, a deadly, illuminating bolt of lightning, a scorching message from the old Slavic supreme deity, Perun, the god of thunder. Or Goran, as the filmmaker would have it.

You can never just be an observer in the midst of carnage – German most clearly states – you will be tainted by it, transformed by it, educated by it and ultimately slayed by it.

It’s hard to be a god, don’t play god. You might just realise that you are human, all too human.

And on that Nietzschean note, I am off to watch the wretched thing again.

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