The word epic carries a dictionary definition as follows: an exceptionally long and arduous task or activity. It is also a word overused when describing films, usually when referring to something hugely popular or complex and long, such as any of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth series. Aleksey German’s Hard to Be a God (or Trudno byt bogom if we’re being precise) is certainly epic, and in the truest sense of the word. But is it also a masterpiece?
There are elements within Hard to Be a God that you may never have seen on film, or may never see again. The world German has created is one that is beautifully repugnant, revelling in its depiction of medieval misery through a reluctance to compromise in any way. Excrement oozes from open windows, collecting and mixing with the rain sodden earth, villagers sporting pustules and boils of various shapes and sizes fill the screen, the full vulgarity of their disease ridden visages imprinting on you without warning. The gruesomeness of a society at the boundaries of acceptance and tolerance is unflinchingly depicted, with a layer of putrid dirt spread thick over everything you can see.
The horror of German’s world is all the more real through the direction, which is both engaging and weirdly observational, and carries a certain found footage feel. Throughout, characters regularly look directly into the camera and interact with it, although save an occasional voiceover nothing is reciprocated. That said, the camera does creep through the dwellings as if a real person, pushing aside the detritus and forging a path in order to focus on who is speaking at any given time. This style is an unsettling experience at times, drawing you in to such an extent you can feel the damp, smell the stench and expect to find some filth under your fingernails when the experience is over.
The story itself almost seems almost secondary. A group of scientists are sent to a planet similar to Earth, but where civilisation is still in the dark ages. Unable to directly influence or interfere their task is difficult and presents the question of what it is to be a God. It is possible however to reach the final scenes of Hard to Be a God and to still be unsure if that is the story you have just watched. It is almost impossible to focus on the narrative such as it is when faced with scenes and sets of such detail and depth.
So is it a masterpiece? Well, yes. Completed by German’s son and wife when the director died before completion, Hard to Be a God is a once in a lifetime work, a film that reportedly took several years to make and several more to edit. It is an example of what wonders the medium of film can convey, of how astounding cinema can be. This is a film that should be seen, that should receive the plaudits and praise it deserves. But, there are caveats. A running time of around 3 hours, with a story that meanders, at times without perceptible reason, is not for the faint hearted. Approach with an open mind and Hard to Be a God won’t fail to impress, but it may not entertain. Epic indeed.
HARD TO BE A GOD / CERT: 15/ DIRECTOR: ALEKSEY GERMAN / SCREENPLAY: ALEKSEY GERMAN, SVETLANA KARMALITA / STARRING: GAIL ABAYDULOV, YURIY ASHIKHMIN, REMIGIJUS BILINSKAS, VALERIY BOLTYSHEV / RELEASE DATE: SEPTEMBER 14TH