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General carnage

06 November 2015

by Stephen Brown

THE film Hard to Be a God (Cert. 18) had the scantiest of cinema releases before Arrow Films’ Special Edition DVD was recently released. Like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, it originated as a novel by the Russian science-fiction authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Both pieces present us with a world manifestly in need of a superior one.

In Tarkovsky’s hands, there is a spiritual quest towards it. In this new film, 15 years in reaching completion and distribution, the director Aleksei Yuryevich German is less optimistic. He shows us, in high-contrast black and white, Arkanar, a distant planet, awash with medieval brutality and ignorance. “Heresy” (whatever that is) is rife and cruelly repressed. Scientists from post-Enlightenment Earth, visiting incognito, feel powerless to interfere.

In keeping with German’s other films, this one may well be a critique of Stalinism and its heirs, but obvious parallels can be made with the ideologically based atrocities presently occurring in the Middle East and elsewhere. Even so, a film bearing so theological a title, as it does, also works as a parable of God’s loving but painful restraint amid the devices and desires of wicked men.

It is certainly hard to be a god in such circumstances. When artists and intellectuals begin to be exterminated, one of the scientists, Don Romata (Leonid Yarmolnik), manages to protect himself and his colleagues by allowing the Arkadyans to treat him as a god. This position, though, gives him little scope to teach his followers an alternative to mud, blood, and tears.

Viewers may question why should we require 170 minutes of virtually unmitigated violence and threat in order to make this point. Peter Fleischmann’s 1989 film based on the same novel, which was never released in English-speaking countries, is more than an hour shorter.

There are many instances, in the current version, where someone looks straight at the camera, often laughing. It feels like an invitation to join in the carnage. We, the audience, are as complicit as those undiscovered scientists. The film’s characters taunt us to forsake our neutrality, cease being distant observers, and collude with them.

German uses this mechanism to remind us that we, too, are participants in the sufferings of humanity. It wouldn’t be godly to stand idly by. We must enter into this world and share its pain. The film is a heartfelt tour de force, more about crucifixion than resurrection.

The DVD includes interviews with the director’s widow, who was co-screenwriter, and with his son, who completed the film after his father’s death. There are also background features on the director’s career and Arkanar.

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