Close-Up: ‘Hard To Be A God’ and the medieval in European cinema
Russian director Aleksei German spent the final 15 years of his life working on Hard To Be A God (2013), a brutal medieval epic adapted from a 1964 novel of the same name by Arkady and Boris Strutgatsky, dying just before he could complete the job in February 2013. Happily, his son and widow were able to oversee the final sound mix. The result is one of the most immersive and harrowing cinematic experiences going, three hours of being put to the sword and mired in the mud, blood and viscera of a nightmare alternate reality.
Although German’s characters are dressed in the clanking armour, chainmail and robes of the European Middle Ages, Hard To Be A God is in fact set on a distant planet, Arkanar, like Earth in every way but for the fact that its populace never experienced an equivalent cultural moment to the Renaissance and so languish 800 years behind us, bogged down in the daily horrors of clan warfare. Our guide through the bowels of this vile realm is Anton (Leonid Yarmolnik), one of a party of visiting scientists, who has reinvented himself as warlord Don Rumata and convinced the locals of his divine provenance. We encounter Rumata on a self-appointed mission to rescue Budkha (Evgeniy Gerchakov), a physician taken prisoner by rival baron Reba (Aleksandr Chutko), whose men, known as The Greys, have been slaughtering Arkanar’s intellectuals and alchemists. A further faction of religious zealots, The Blacks, are meanwhile plotting to overthrow Reba’s tyranny and impose their own.
It has to be said that German’s film is far from easy viewing, a gruelling trawl through the dank stone dungeons of a kingdom defined by its violence and squalor. But despite the relentless onslaught of muck — you can positively taste the festering stink of its bathhouses and running streets — it’s a ravishing spectacle, its black-and-white cinematography starkly grand. Hard To Be A God is also a loving recreation of an utterly plausible medieval world. The result of the director’s devotion to this drawn-out production is it’s impressive attention to detail. Iron manacles hang from the ceilings, fires crackle in coal braziers, blacksmiths pound away at anvils, chickens roam between the feet of passing peasant folk, wine is sloshed and vomited, drunks and harlots barged aside, coins clatter to the ground. You really believe you’re there, scurrying along at Rumata’s side, keeping pace with his swagger through the mist for your own protection.
In this respect, Hard To Be A God joins a fine tradition of European films to capitalise on the exquisite mountainous landscapes and castle ruins of the continent to bring the past to life, often very unsentimentally. Escaping the studio-bound artificiality of equivalent American and British productions like Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944), many of these projects were undertaken in the decades immediately after the dust had settled on World War II, speaking to audiences all too recently acquainted with barbarism and still living under totalitarian rule. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966), about the life of the 15th century Christian icon painter, is one of the most famous examples of this school, but many less celebrated works have come to light since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. that are worth revisiting.
Shot on location in the Czech Republic, German’s film first and foremost calls to mind the work of Czech New Wave director František Vláčil (so far as Hard To Be A God is like anything at all). A world away from the beer-and-sausages whimsy that typifies the best known output of that movement, such as Jiří Menzel’s Closely Observed Trains (1966) or Miloš Forman’s The Fireman’s Ball (1967), Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarová (1967) and Valley Of The Bees (1968) share a crisp monochrome aesthetic with Hard To Be A God and are equally lived-in affairs, grounded in period naturalism. The former is about the kidnapping of the daughter of a Bohemian feudal lord who becomes the mistress of one of her captors, while the latter concerns a Teutonic Knight who loses faith in the order and forsakes his vows to return home.
Made side-by-side and released at the dawning of the Prague Spring, these two companion pieces were quickly interpreted as allegories for Soviet oppression and hustled out of Czech cinemas thereafter, with Vláčil’s reputation outside of his home country suffering as a result. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, however, Marketa Lazarová has been rediscovered and was named the greatest Czech film of all time by critics voting in a national poll in 1998. Both are now available on DVD thanks to Second Run and will hopefully find the wider audience that Vláčil deserves. Both are filled with arresting imagery — horses struggling through marshland, wolves pursuing deer through wintery Slovak forests, coastal monasteries cast against a glowering sky — and incredibly atmospheric choral scores by Zdeněk Liška that draw us irresistibly back into the deathly murk of the 13th century.
Valley Of The Bees in particular owes a debt to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), notably in presenting the spectacle of conflicted knight Ondřej wandering morosely along the shoreline, looking out to sea as he contemplates his alienation and doubt. Bergman’s Antonius Block, recently returned from the Crusades, does the same, only in his case he finds the Grim Reaper staring back. Exhausted by his trials in the Holy Land, Block believes he has squandered his existence and promises the spirit that he will carry out one genuinely meaningful act to redeem himself. With the Black Death hanging in the air, Bergman used the Middle Ages to conjure an atmosphere of terror in which to express his anxieties about the possibility of believing in a loving god in a post-holocaust world where the spectre of The Bomb loomed to the east and west.
These examples highlight the versatility of the medieval genre, which is surprisingly amenable to serving as a vehicle for addressing contemporary themes via allegory. The sight of a poet having his manuscripts burned and being drowned in a vat of excrement by The Greys in Hard To Be A God has been likened to the demolition of ancient monuments in Palmyra and across Syria by Islamic State terrorists. These acts of wanton cultural vandalism actually began occurring sometime after German’s death, which just goes to demonstrate the depressing universality of an idea first put across in the Strutgatskys’ source novel.
Other notable European cinematic presentations of matters medieval include Fritz Lang’s five-hour, two-part silent epic Die Nibelungen (1924) and Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938).
Lang’s film, written by his wife and long-time collaborator Thea von Harbou, was “dedicated to the German people” and commenced in the hope of boosting national morale following the country’s defeat in 1918 and the subsequent malaise of hyper-inflation and hardship that defined the wayward Weimar era. Reclaiming Germany’s most cherished pre-Christian myths from Richard Wagner, Lang and von Harbou sought to give the stories an emotional reality that the masses could relate to without compromising their fantastic appeal. It’s an extraordinary achievement, running from Siegfried and Brunhild to Attila the Hun and taking in dragons, goblin gold and lakes of fire. Eisenstein’s film meanwhile sought to dramatise contemporary tensions between the U.S.S.R. and Nazi Germany prior to the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact in 1939.
Eisenstein, like Lang, was in the business of patriotic mythmaking, presenting Nikolai Cherkasov’s prince as a champion of the people. This was also the motivation behind the making of Alexander Ford’s lavish widescreen epic Knights Of The Black Cross (1960), a blockbusting regional hit and a huge endeavour that saw 15,000 extras recreate the Battle of Grunewald, in which the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth overturned the Teutonic Knights in 1410. A rousing national origin story, it’s a wonder the Soviet authorities allowed it to escape the fate of Vláčil’s films over the border.
Two more interesting accounts of knightly valour from Central and Eastern Europe around this period are Grigori Kozintsev’s Don Quixote (1957) — still the only complete silver screen version of Cervantes’ glorious satire, in which the Crimea ably stands in for the baked plains of La Mancha and which again finds Cherkasov on horseback — and Karel Zeman’s A Jester’s Tale (1964). Fusing live action with animation inspired by the 17th century Swiss engraver Mätthaus Merian, Zeman’s swashbuckling fantasy earned him the nickname “the Czech Méliès” and admiration from the likes of Terry Gilliam. The piece is an anti-war satire in which a Moravian farmhand is forcibly pressed into service in the Thirty Years War (1618–48), changing sides several times and befriending a world-weary mercenary and a girl disguised as a jester. Zeman repeatedly underlines the farcical nature of conflict and its inherent futility, suggesting that the only difference between two competing armies is the insignia on their tunics — a theme also taken up, incidentally, by Hungarian Miklós Jancsó in his contemporaneous but 1919-set war film The Red And The White (1967).
Aleksei German may well have broadly agreed with Zeman’s stance, but that’s where the similarities end. Quite frankly, nothing will prepare you for Hard To Be A God.
There is, of course, one crucial distinction between German’s film and its predecessors named above. Although German uses the same costumes, fortresses and iconography as the historical dramas from which he draws inspiration, his film ultimately belongs to the fantasy genre. Like HBO’s all-conquering TV series Games Of Thrones (2011-), German is borrowing an aesthetic without getting caught up in the business of meticulous reconstruction. Robert Bresson, for one, made a virtue of this process in his exacting Trial Of Joan Of Arc (1962), based on the minutes recording the final hours the martyr spent languishing in jail prior to her execution. German, though, has been liberated from the restraints and demands of historical accuracy by the Strutgatskys sci-fi source and is thus free to bend medieval Arkanar to his own ends.
The result is a work that speaks of the universal struggle to exist. Like his persecuted poets, German had firsthand experience of the difficulties of creating something meaningful in a stifling, cynical atmosphere beset with obstacles, corruption and competing interests. His last passion project is a compelling vision of life lived as an unending war, a battle for survival against the aggressive forces of philistinism, cruelty and greed. A brutalising dog fight, man must take every care not to lose himself in the fray. As an exhausted Don Rumata concludes at the close, it’s hard to be a god.
Originally published at mubi.com on December 4, 2015.