Originally Published September 18, 2014
German’s adaptation of Strugatskys’ Hard To Be a God creates not just a new world, but a whole new planet. While supposedly set in the authors’ own Noon Universe, the film seems to defy its precondition and struggles to have himself born. It is not just a world with different set of culture (but similar to Earth’s), but rather a very different body itself where “earthling common sense” would never apply. Alien might be the correct term for this.
It starts with a narrator, like most classic sci-fi films, trying to draft a background for you or like reading the back synopsis of a paperback novel: the film happens in a planet far from Earth but 800 years behind ours in the development of its civilization. A world “trapped” in the “Middle Ages”. A team of scientists and historians from Earth were sent to this planet to help develop its civilization, until its citizens started to kill those “wise men”. Once Don Ramata is introduced, nothing of the introduction gave much to explain what really is happening here. As much as the comfort of similarities are there: the Middle Age setting and all, it still resists to give you the comfort of sameness and would rather have you integrate in it.
The film sucks you into its world and provides a space for you to be a part of it. Images are clear but has an attitude of a “home movie” : people moving around blocking the camera, people looking into the camera, people talking into the camera – talking to you – and everyone acts like you are not different. You are now a participant and not just an audience: an accomplice, if you may, of the crimes that are going to happen.
Being the quiet accomplice that we are, we witness days in life of a Don Rumata the God (or technically a “Demi-God” since he’s only half god as the narration and Rumata’s introduction of himself say), his daily exploits on murder and other peculiar activities (is that shit they’re wiping on their faces?). The frame follows Rumata wherever, smoothly and comfortably gliding. The trips takes us to spectacles of punishment: from scaffolds, to machineries of punishment and hanging bodies on noose. Ramata exposes you to images of violence and anarchy, even German’s choice of (absence of) color is violent as it blurs the identity of objects present on each frame: you’d never distinguish shit from mud or bile.
This kind of realization of a completely imagined world is the film’s most notable accomplishment. German staged a world visually same but feels very different, very alien. Unlike most sci-fi who’d rather bring back to Earth the Other Planets, Hard to be a God distanced it self from the similarity.
It is only near the last scenes when it initiated an event very similar to Earth’s: a war. Near the end, as the screen transits from a bloodstained frame, we witness a foggy, rainy morning with dead bodies piled up: the aftermath. I find it disturbing that it took the film to show me an image of such death just for me to reach some comfort of familiarity.