Filthy, Squalid, Genius: Why It’s ‘Hard to Be a God’

Now in limited release, the science-fiction-fantasy feature Hard to Be a God is a carnival of human detritus — spiritual, physical, moral, political — unlike anything ever committed to film. The lifelong project of Aleksei German, who passed away in 2013, Hard to Be a God was completed by the director’s family (it apparently only required a bit of post-production work.) If you get the chance to see it in limited release, you should. Although, sooner or later, it will likely be screened more widely: it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a film this appetizingly poised at the interstice between genre-film, cult object, and auteur cinema.

Maybe I should drop the term “appetizing,” for Hard to Be a God is among the basest, grossest, filthiest artifacts in the history of auteur cinema. Though I could trade “interstice” for “entrails,” because it feels more like we’re being churned in German’s stomach, mixed-in with his own strange digestion of book’s source material.

German’s film is based on a novel by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, a pair of brothers whose science fiction books have been praised by the greats: Stanislaw Lem, Theodore Sturgeon, Ursula K. Le Guin, and countless others. As far as the relation between film and literature is concerned, the Strugatsky brothers are to Russian and Soviet cinema what Philip K. Dick is to American film and television: their work, used as source material, is gold. Their Roadside Picnic forms the basis of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and they wrote the screenplay, as well as the novel-source material (Definitely Maybe), for Alexander Sokurov’s mesmerizing Days of Eclipse.

The frame of the book (and so the film) is relatively straightforward. In the future, a committee of human scholars is convened to search out, observe, and document alien life across the universe. The goal of this research is nominally benign: the committee will use their findings to nudge these worlds towards the sort of enlightenment achieved on Earth. One such alien backyard is the Kingdom of Arkanar, which is operated as a sort of medieval and thoroughly “feudal” society. Thus both book and film, although couched within a science-fiction frame, largely feel like fantasy works without the dragons or sorcery.

The protagonist of both book and film is a man named Anton, who is known on Arkanar as Don Rumata. Sent by the committee, Anton has a mandate of non-intervention that, well, makes it hard for him to be a god. About the rest of the plot, I will only add that Anton/Don Rumata plays witness to a terrible massacre, which explains German’s original title for the film —  The History of the Arkanar Massacre.

The book was written by the Strugatsky’s during the thaw and refreeze of Soviet Culture in the 1950s and 1960s. Transparently a critique of Stalinism, it caused them considerable trouble:

It was rejected by the Strugatskys’ usual publisher, Detgiz (the State children’s publishing house), and by the serious literary journal Moskva. The authors tried to soften the text to make it more palatable to the Soviet authorities. On advice from the established science fiction novelist Efremov, for example, they changed Don Rebia’s anagram name [It was an unsubtle reference to Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s head of secret police] and he became Don Reba. The manuscript remained unacceptable. In the end, the authors published themselves in a collection called Dalyokaya Raduga (“Distant Rainbow”).

Although still relatively unknown in the United States, the novel has sold millions of copies in Russia. (It also a spawned a much worse film version featuring Werner Herzog and a videogame.) This may have something to do with the way the material transcends the strictures of careworn ideology critique, or, as Ignatiy Vishnevetsky writes about the film version, it may have something to do with the increased similarities of Stalinist and Putin-era repression:

Hard To Be A God, a project begun in the mid-1960s as a commentary on Stalinism and filmed in early- to mid-2000s, looks, at least in part, like an attack on Putin-era Russia. It sure as hell wasn’t intended that way, but that’s how it plays. Go figure.

Frankly it’s hard to see why both film and book have struggled to find American distribution; despite their differences — the film is a slog that becomes beautiful; the novel a brisk read that handles a range of difficult themes — they are both, in their own way, masterpieces.

American publishers are starting to take note. Chicago Review Press, who published the Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic in 2012, wisely released a new translation of the novel version last year. Last year, too, Melville House published the Strugatsky’s Definitnely Maybe. And this year, they’ll release The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn: One More Last Rite for the Detective Genre — which apparently does for science-fiction/detective hybridization what Hard to Be a God has done for sci-fi/fantasy — in March.