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For the second successive week a black-and-white Russian film smashes everything else out of the ballpark. Aleksei German’s astonishing, overpowering Hard to Be a God is eight decades younger than last week’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). But how do you pin an exact birthday on a movie that began shooting in 2000 and still needed post-production nips and tucks at the director’s death in 2013? His same-name filmmaker son provided them. (German Sr himself completed five features before this, all successes of opaque esteem.)
Imagine you’re in Purgatory: it’s medieval and it’s on another planet. You tread through filth and ferment — smoke, mud, manure (some human), hanging carcases (several human), rot, reek, flapping birds, caged or carrion — in the footsteps of Don Rumato (Leonid Yarmolnik). He is an observer from Earth, with a few others, their mission to watch and note, not influence, this alien society.
There is and will be no Enlightenment. “The Renaissance? Not here,” someone says. There is only the accumulated tragic squalor of existence, conceived in a coign of the cosmos by the Strugatsky brothers (whose novel Roadside Picnic inspired Tarkovsky’s Stalker). I haven’t read Hard to Be a God; I only know German’s movie is a standalone soul-socker; maybe the greatest film since the millennium began.
Eyeball-to-eyeball cruelty, quest, epiphany, passion. The Don goes solo, trampling on his sworn mission. He gets swept into civil quarrel and strife, argues the toss of life’s meaning with clerics, artists and bookworms, travels deeper into human hell through the rooms and tunnels of what seems an endless castle.
The framing is so tight it’s like rush hour in Dante’s Inferno. Weird props (cages, severed limbs) swing in front of the camera. An owl swoops from a nook and lands on the Don’s shoulder. Characters shuffle past the lens, turning to us as if to say, “What are you doing here?” The film is about observation: its powerless, farcical, unquenchable curiosity. And it’s about — imagine a drama hewn from Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle — how observers become actors or influencers, whether they want to or not.
By the close, exhausted, transported, blitzkrieg’d, the dead strewn around us on a now opened-out landscape, we the living flounder on both sides of the screen. We have seen the past and, like the present and future, it doesn’t work. Or rather it is an eternal work in progress since no part of history (even on an imaginary planet) has ever received closure or proper finish. We mortals don’t know what we are doing. But we are heroic, cruel, inventive, visionary, insatiable, indefatigable — in a word, human — in the attempt to know.