“Don’t drink. I only sniff now.”
There’s a plot inside Aleksey German‘s final film Трудно быть богом [Hard to Be a God]—an audacious sci-fi epic slinging mud and feces in our faces while everyone onscreen sniffs them like drugs until we’re involuntarily following suit. No really, there is. Well, maybe a lingering vestige of what Arkadiy and Boris Strugatskiy‘s original novel contained that the 74-year old auteur (who’d wanted to adapt it since the 60s before finally completing it after a decade-long production process ultimately ending in his death from heart failure) keeps intact via brief expository narration at the start. The gist: what we’re seeing is actually another planet named Arkanar, one inhabited by humans just like Earth but stuck 800 years behind. Scientists are sent to help them exit their Middle Ages and find a Renaissance. It doesn’t go well.
Actually, we don’t know how well it goes since this three-hour opus focuses mainly on the shenanigans of one scientist going by the name Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik)—a leader with our world’s immunities to disease, superior weaponry, and strength. Besides one rule to follow: don’t kill anyone, Arkanar is pretty much his to run amok. So he kicks his slaves into puddles, calls himself the son of their God Goran so everyone will worship him, and watches as the planet’s inhabitants led by religious zealots The Order hang and tar anyone with enough creativity to end these dark times. His mistress (Laura Pitskhelauri) hopes for a child so her connection to God will prevent a Tower of Joy sentence, friend Baron Pampa (Yuriy Tsurilo) wants a reveling partner, and many others want his head.
Admittedly, three-quarters of this plot description comes from me researching the book so I could begin to comprehend everyone’s motivations in the movie. The fact it made sense in that context tells me fans of the Strugatskiys’ work should find it a faithful adaptation where someone ignorant to the source like myself sees unfocused chaos. It’s beautiful chaos, though—as beautiful as excrement, bugs, and toothless townsfolk can claim such a label. There’s so much detail packed into every frame that you will sit back in awe at the meticulous care German took to authentically recreate the era. Most sequences are long takes of Don Rumata roaming with Vladmir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko‘s Steadicams following and panning. Objects often block our view and almost every extra eventually looks directly into our eyes with a lewd remark or gesture.
This breaking of the fourth wall is the film’s greatest strength because it puts us into the shoes of a scientist wholly out of his element in a land way before his time. German makes us an ambassador, an outsider made to observe as the people of Arkanar collide in fits of aggression and violence while suppressing every instance that potentially holds their salvation. We find ourselves judging this world—so disgusted by the filth and ignorance that we imagine ourselves becoming as righteous and entitled as Rumata before us. We laugh at peasants chuckling and staring, unsure if we’re seen as ourselves or another character checking up on the scientists sent. And ultimately we’re as frustrated as them when threatened with arrest and murder, reaching an identical conclusion that killing everyone and starting from scratch is best.
You have to commend Yarmolnik for his commanding performance as well as German and his wife Svetlana Karmalita for co-writing a screenplay allowing him to retain his warped sense of “civility” as long as he does. Rumor flies—one Don Rumata either began or acted upon—that he doesn’t kill because he takes his opponents’ ears instead. It’s a great deception that neutralizes Earth’s law against murder, maintaining his ferocity to all who might dare attack. Like all deceptions, however, word travels and assumptions of weakness are born. Sadly for those who do attempt wresting power from him, his strength and confidence never wavers because neither is fabricated. Eventually threats of killing everyone in retribution become more than idle with him standing in The Order’s way of keeping Arkanar as it is. And these opponents are ready to kill.
So we’re caught in the muck and the crosshairs as Rumata and The Order set forth on their collision course of death and destruction. The smiles of bystanders enjoying our presence turn to scowls or indifference. Word of a massacre is carried on the wind as new characters like the doctor Budakh (Evgeniy Gerchakov) emerge if only to devolve into one of the naked and dirty cretins running wild. The insanity increases, allegiances are tested, and former allies are found hanging where Rumata is most definitely thought as next to join them. Slaves are freed only to die, loved ones are mowed down accidentally, and through it all Earth’s man turned God survives to watch Arkanar crumble. He laments the difficulty of his position and we wonder whether annihilation would be marked as failure or success.
There comes a point where it’s nature versus nurture—this alien planet consuming all who visit or observe into its hoard of similar creatures. Hubris intrinsically constructs a superior/inferior dynamic without the latter knowing the former exists and we start coveting the carnage, wishing to inflict some by our own hands while enjoying what occurs when acknowledging the impossibility of participation cuts through the fog. I was sure Rumata would turn and invite us to join him a la Funny Games, German perhaps fitting his cinematographers with weaponry so we could wade through the mud like a first-person shooter. But while we never officially get to partake, our sitting with eyes opened until the end credits might be worse. I could have stopped it all by looking away and yet the thought never crossed my mind.
 Leonid Yarmolnik
 Hard to Be a God villagers
 Hard to Be a God set
Credit: Kino Lorber Inc.