Hard to be a God

Release Year: 1989
Country: Germany, Russia, France
Starring: Edward Zentara, Aleksandr Filippenko, Hugues Quester, Anne Gautier, Christine Kaufmann, Andrei Boltnev, Pierre Clementi, Mikhail Gluzsky, Elgudzha Burduli, Birgit Doll, Werner Herzog
Screenplay: Jean-Claude Carriere
Director: Peter Fleischmann

In November of 1989, The Berlin Wall — perhaps the most potent symbol of the Cold War other than Ivan Drago — became a minor speed bump as the physical, social, and political barriers separating West and East Germany collapsed. As Germans began streaming back and forth across the once imposing border, the entirety of the Soviet-era Iron Curtain began to crumble as well, and before anyone knew what was happening, the world had changed. In the ensuing weeks and months, East and West German were reunited into a single country, the Berlin Wall was demolished, and the Soviet Union ceased to be while the satellites that had once comprised it became new countries. It was a heady mix of joy, terror, confusion, elation, and ambivalence that I remember well.

I was seventeen, a senior in high school, dating an exchange student from West Berlin. When the news started rolling in that morning, it was in fits and starts, and no one could believe what they were hearing, this being in a time before cell phones, the Web, and other current forms of communication that allow pretty much anyone to post photos, video, and news instantly. In most ways I was simply along for the ride, at least compared to her, but it’s still an emotional turning point in history for me, however removed physically I may have been from the ecstatic Germans taking to that fucking wall with sledgehammers and David Hasselhoff (and from the United States to Germany — no. No matter how much time passes, we will not drop the Hasselhoff joke).

In 1989, before the dust had settled, before anyone even really knew what the future held in store, a group of filmmakers from France teamed up with a group of filmmakers from West Germany and the Soviet Union — two countries that wouldn’t even exist by the time their work was finished — to make an ambitious, batty, corny sci-fi fantasy film called Es ist nicht leicht ein Gott zu sein, known (well, not really known at all) in English as Hard to be a God, that ended up being a telling reflection of the upheaval and anxiety that permeated east and west Europe during the final days of the 1980s.

We find ourselves on yet another of those distant planets that looks vaguely like medieval Earth with some Dungeons & Dragons stuff thrown in. Through the blighted but dramatic landscape (the movie was filmed in The Ukraine and parts of Soviet Asia) rides a man, Rumata (Polish actor Edward Zentara), who looks like he’s on his way to a costume party dressed as some zany version of Christophe Lambert in Highlander. Actually, he’s on his way to an even more lavish affair — the court of a loony king (Pierre Clementi, flailing about wildly and going way over the top, as people playing crazy sci-fi rulers usually do) who sort of half-assedly rules over a grubby, maze-like city of cliff dwellings and mud huts. The real power in the city, as is frequently the case, actually lies with the king’s advisor and chief of the secret police, the cadaverous Reba (Aleksandr Filippenko, and if this movie had ever been remade in the United States, it would have been criminal not to put Michael Ironside in this role). Rumata has little interest in local political intrigue, however, and is merely in town to find a merchant who owes him some money.

Or so Rumata says. Reba grows suspicious of Rumata when local records show that a nobleman by the same name was reported dead by fever some months back. The wily vizer dismisses it to Rumata as a record keeping error, but obviously suspicions have been ignited. Rumata meets up with the merchant, Mita (crazy ol’ director Werner Herzog in a cameo!), and we soon learn that Reba’s suspicions are well founded. Rumata and Mita are actually Anton and Richard, two observers from an orbiting spaceship of future Earthlings conducting an anthropological study of the planet and its sundry primitive societies and questionable decisions as pertains to hairstyles (thank god that wasn’t Anton’s real hair). Mita, however, has gone native and decided that he wants to help foster a revolution against the corrupt and abusive tyranny. No sooner has he explained this to Rumata/Anton than the revolution is on. Too bad Mita chose to enlist the aid of Reba, who uses the uprising as an opportunity to slaughter civilians and clean out most of his political adversaries, leaving himself more or less in charge, given that the king’s primary function in the government seems to be to swoon and suffer from the vapors.

Anton manages to con his way out of being associated with Mita’s failed rebellion, but the powers that be on the orbiting ship insist that he take Mita’s place until a suitable replacement scout can be prepped and dispatched. Anton does the best he can to fit in, but his admiration for the would-be inventors, artists, and scientists laboring under the yoke of a brutal regime that loves nothing so much as slaughtering potentially intelligent people (“God gave men a tongue so they could lick boots, not so they could speak their mind”) means that before too long, he, too is feeling pangs of regret at being merely an observer. When Reba’s campaign of oppression and anti-intellectualism escalates into wholesale slaughter, the man from space can no longer contain himself to just standing on the sidelines.

In many ways, Hard to be a God is a goofy movie — not so least of these ways being the terrible wigs and the inability of Germans and Soviets to resist accompanying space scenes with blasts of bombastic prog rock. But the movie is trying so hard, and is so full of ideas (in an era where American science fiction cinema was becoming increasingly shallow and action-oriented) and challenging questions that whatever 1980s-tinged stylistic quirks it may possess are easily dismissed. This is science fiction as speculative fiction, when it was used as a way to address modern quandaries and puzzle out potential pitfalls and solutions. It is, in fact, very much like an episode of Star Trek (the original series or Next Generation — take your pick) — with all the ham-handedness that implies — only with more grime, more blood, and more full frontal male nudity (the best we ever got from Picard was chest-revealing bedwear).

The ambitiousness of the story is largely attributable to the source material, a novel called Trudno byt Bogom authored by the Soviet sci-fi writing team of Arkadiy and Boris Strugatskiy, best known in the west for writing the novel that eventually became Andrey Tarkovskiy’s Stalker. I guess Stalker isn’t terribly well-known in the United States, but it’s at least available here. Tarkovskiy is sort of the Soviet sci-fi equivalent of Satyajit Ray. Based on domestic video releases (at least until more recently), you’d think Ray was the only film maker in all of India. Similarly, it was a long time before you could find any Soviet or other Eastern European sci-fi other than Tarkovskiy’s Stalker and Solaris.

But we’re not here to talk about Andrey Tarkovskiy. The point is that Arkadiy and Boris Strugatskiy excelled at writing complex and challenging science fiction novels that were adapted into equally complex and challenging science fiction films. But where as Stalker is exceptionally deliberate and slow in its pacing, Hard to be a God has much more of a pulp adventure sensibility about it. It’s the Strugatskiys filtered through Astounding Tales, or maybe more accurately, Metal Hurlant (the French sci-fi magazine that, when imported into America, became Heavy Metal). It’s science fiction that doesn’t eschew tackling philosophical issues, but at the same time, also shows affection for the fantastic adventure and action that was popular in sci-fi and fantasy at the time.

The most striking aspect of the plot is its stance on totalitarianism and anti-intellectualism. In the world of Hard to be a God‘s medieval potentates, there is no greater danger to their authority than a literate population. Communism, I think, has always had a contentious relationship with intellectuals. In the Soviet Union and East Germany (among other places), intellectuals were often harried and hounded, imprisoned or executed, while in the west, pro-Communist sympathies were often attributed to academics and the intelligentsia. In both cases, however, there is a depressing demonization of free thought and intelligence. This aspect of Hard to be a God, particularly, remains biting even today, living as we do in the midst of another anti-intelligence hysteria where politicians and pundits go to great lengths to marginalize intelligence, encourage stupidity, and cast “the average American” as a clueless, paranoid dip shit — with “clueless, paranoid dip shit” actually being considered a compliment. It’s a stunning illustration of the old Subgenius adage, “Act like a dumbshit and they’ll treat you like an equal.”

For most of the film’s running time, Anton is a sympathetic observer. The more active heroes of the story are a wandering scientist named Budach (Andrei Boltnev), who has pioneered advances in medicine and astronomy, and a simple weaponsmith named Hauk (Mikhail Gluzsky), who (with Mita’s assistance) has invented the world’s first printing press. Hauk, in particular, is an interesting hero. He’s not a rebel. He’s not a firebrand. He’s not even really looking to overthrow the government. He is just an inventor who has made something he thinks could help advance society, but Reba recognizes the press as being far more dangerous than any of the actual weapons that hang in Hauk’s workshop. His STASI-like organization of goons and spies spends far less time worrying about fighters with swords, and much more time worrying about farmers and yokels teaching themselves to read and write. Revolutions don’t happen because a bunch of revolutionaries get together in a rented room and make speeches at each other, after all. They happen because normal, everyday people can no longer suppress the feeling that something is wrong with society, that the way things are is not the way things should be. The firebrands can, as the name implies, be the spark, but the movement ultimately lies with the Hauks of the world, those regular Joes who can no longer deny that things simply aren’t right.

Even more vocal in his dissent is a pan flute playing poet named Suren (Hughes Quester, which itself sounds like a science fiction name), who likes to rile up crowds with his anti-government performance art. It’s a good thing he moonlights as a revolutionary, because his pan flute playing is simply terrible. Although it’s not as overt as the movie’s stance on anti-intellectualism, Hard to be a God also encourages the viewer to think about the issue of cause and effect. Suren, for example, riles up crowds who are then summarily slaughtered by guards. He tends to stir shit up then make an escape, leaving his listeners to pay the price in blood and suffering. Does Suren bear responsibility for these deaths?

Similarly, Anton is (initially) an observer, but the arrival of his people’s ship — which caused a brilliant flash in the night sky observable with the naked eye — is one of the very occurrences that has ushered in the era of religious fanaticism and paranoia. What responsibility do the “aliens” bear for inadvertently causing the very situation they claim not to be interfering in? Ultimately, at least Suren becomes a rebel leader, fighting and suffering alongside the people he incites. If the locals are totalitarian Eastern Europe on the brink of revolution, are the future humans hovering on the sidelines (or in orbit, as the case may be) the United States, partially responsible for what’s happening while not exactly wanting to take an active part in the process? Hell, could they even make a difference if they did try?

While the situation on the planet comes to a boil, things are changing on the space station, too as Anton goes through his crisis of conscience. The observers who see events in real time through Anton’s eyes find themselves increasingly conflicted over the mission. Particularly moved is Anton’s primary observer (Birgit Doll), who begins not only to fear for Anton, but to empathize as he does with the plight of the locals. As this unfolds, another of the movie’s philosophical musings makes itself known, this time regarding the ubiquity of images of suffering, and how all-encompassing media focusing on images of violence can cause us to lose our ability to sympathize with others. From this approach, the futuristic observers are like journalists covering a war zone, and it reminded me of a story I once heard told by a photographer working in Serbia during the war. Fighting had flared up near where he was, so he was out doing his job as a photojournalist. At some point, he comes across a girl who has been shot and is obviously going to die. In one sense, the moral quandary of what to do is dismissed — there is no saving her, even if the photojournalist had any medical training. So he takes her photo, and as he’s snapping the photo, she does indeed die.

At first, the photojournalist (I really wish I could remember who told this story) tells himself what reporters often tell themselves (and I’m not saying that in a judgmental or accusing fashion — my degree is in journalism after all): that her death will serve a purpose, that the photo of this suffering young woman might convince people that this madness has to end. And then he realizes that while he was taking the photo, that woman was watching herself die in the reflection on his lens. His commitment to the image, to making it mean something, had clouded his empathy for the person in front of him, and in that moment, he forced her to bear witness to her own last breath. In situations like that, what is the right thing to do? Is there a right thing to do? Similarly, do Anton and the observers in space has a moral obligation to help the people they witness suffering? Can they help? Or will their contribution make no difference, perhaps make things worse?

Hard to be a God doles out questions, but not always answers. After all, part of the problem with hard questions is that they are hard questions. It’s folly to think that an answer is necessarily on hand to be served up. When the city’s revolution finally comes to a boil, the aftermath leaves us with the same ambivalence as was undoubtedly gripping Europe in the late days of the Berlin Wall — or for a more recent example, the revolutions that are occurring in places like Egypt and Libya. Sci-fi films are often heavy-handed and sometimes clumsy with their messages, but it’s always fun when they at least attempt to have a message. Hard to be a God‘s approach to speculation is slightly clunky, but it’s also impressive and admirable. It’s earnest to the point of being cornball, but man alive do I ever appreciate that. And I appreciate the fact that it was made partially in the Soviet Union, sporting a message that could be seen as very much anti Soviet Union.

I don’t like to stray too far into politics in film reviews — not because I don’t think they’re worth discussing, and not because I don’t have strong feelings about myriad political and social topics. I just don’t think that a website review with a comments section lends itself well to more serious conversations. Such subjects are best left for face to face situations, though comments are still better than people who try to debate politics via Twitter. Still, it’s difficult to do anything more than a very cursory review of a movie like this without delving into politics. Whether you agree or disagree with what’s being put forth, I think it’s important that we always have at least a portion of science fiction’s output dedicated to tackling social and political issues, even if it does so clumsily or with with naivety.

Hard to be a God also doesn’t hesitate to take aim at religion (and anyone who can disentangle religion from politics is a more organized person than I am). The movie casts, at the very least, a very skeptical eye toward organized religion, which is portrayed as ultimately being little more than just one more tool the powerful use to subjugate the masses. In an opening narration, outlaw scholar and scientist Budach muses on how mankind can be so bold as to think they can recognize God, given that our eyesight is so poor. Religious fervor is used by Reba to keep the masses ignorant and fearful, and thus much easier for him to control. At the same time, I get the sense that Reba’s own religious fervor is genuine, rather than merely being a useful tool for manipulation.

Anyway, I don’t want to stray any further into religion, either, but once again, it’s a shallow reading of the film not to address it. for the most part, I’m sympathetic to the film’s assertions about religion — though I also freely admit that said assertions are being viewed through my own subjective lens as an atheist. I don’t really have any strong feelings about someone believing in God, or gods, or whatever they chose. Personal choice is personal choice. What I hate is the exploitation of people’s religious beliefs in the name of promoting narrow mindedness, ignorance, fear, and hate. Reba stokes religious fear to suppress scientific experimentation, the spread of literacy, and the tendency of people to question authority. Once again, I wish the events in Hard to be a God didn’t resonate with me as effectively as they do, but here we are, in the midst of a renaissance when it comes to sleazy politicians using religious fear to manipulate people. For a while, I assumed that these politicians were simply spewing whatever crap they thought would gain them approval points, and while I still don’t entirely doubt that, I also have started thinking that, like Reba, a lot of them actually believe the insane bullshit they’re spouting.

As I mentioned earlier, what sets Hard to be a God apart from Stalker is that it dishes out lofty speculation and questions and tackles religion and politics but doesn’t skimp on the action. The first half of the movie is packed with scenes of Reba’s thugs pillaging towns and villages in true sword and sorcery film fashion, with Anton occasionally stepping in to martial arts the hell out of the goons. The second half of the film, though, is taken over by the revolution, and it is here that director Peter Fleischmann really pulls out all the stops. Reba reveals that his thugs were really just cannon fodder for the would-be rebels and calls in a force of warrior-monks to truly lay down the law, Dark Ages style. His theocratic reign is even more out of control in its brutality than his secret police ever allowed him to be.

Anton finally reaches his breaking point, and with the help of Suren, a baron cut from the hard drinkin’, hard fightin’, always a-bellowin’ cloth of Brian Blessed, and a god damned Riptide helicopter (glad to see future people still use helicopters), Anton rebels against his own people to help the rebellion. Fleishmann then delivers a finale full of shouting, beheading, kung fu-ing, and guys in robes extending their hands up toward yon heavens. The resolution of hostilities, however, is hardly tidy, and an uncertain melancholy tinges whatever hope has been given to the people by the end of things.

And then the power ballad starts up. These people did let David Hasselhoff sing atop the Berlin Wall, after all.

I really liked this movie a lot. It takes a few missteps, though not all are necessarily the fault of the film makers — though they bear full responsibility for having seen those wigs the costume department brought to the shoot and thought, “Yes, let’s go with those!” The dubbing, for instance, is pretty bad in spots, but anyone who’ watched a multi-national European production is already used to this. There’s the problem of extras who never seem as engaged in the events around them as they probably should be, which is a symptom of many movies that feature a lot of extras getting blown up, staging revolutions, and getting chased by space highlander in a helicopter. And then there’s a the cultural gap that makes slaughtering an animal on screen OK for one group of people but not necessarily OK for me, even though the animal was likely eaten, and even though I eat meat (which, incidentally, Anton and the future humans find revolting).

The script is also pretty ham-fisted in spots — but it’s also incredibly sincere, I think, and that salvages a lot. Plus, hammy though it may be, it’s a pretty well-spun sci-fi yarn, with a good balance of philosophy and action. As Anton/Rumata, icy-eyed Edward Zentara is at first a blend of happy-go-lucky and stand-offish, but he’s an actor with good charisma so one quickly sympathizes with him. As his character becomes increasingly conflicted over the morality of being an “impartial observer,” Zentara makes it easy to relate to the man who’s technology could, presumably, change the course of history — or simply screw things up even worse. Aleksandr Filippenko’s turn as the sinister Reba nimbly walks that thin line between restrained menace and cartoonish villainy, while Pierre Clementi shows no such restraint as the ineffectual, bonkers king. That man flops and wails and flaps his hands with reckless abandon, all while wearing a silver-blue mane of crimped hair that might go down in history as the worst wig of all time.

The women get somewhat lost in the proceedings — a frequent problem in science fiction, and one that even Hard to be a God‘s interesting multi-cultural pedigree can’t escape. Most of the women are symbols at best, things that inspire men to action. And naturally, just about all of them want to throw themselves at Anton. Only Anton’s native maid Kyra (stunning Anne Gautier) and his space-based observer Anka (Birgit Doll) receive any sort of real character development. Kyra comes out as the more moving of the two, if only because she’s in more immediate danger, and Anka is supposed to be part of a emotionally controlled advanced race who spend most of the day staring blankly at video monitors. One assumes that the future humans have achieved gender equality, but ultimately, gender politics are one of the few issues into which Hard to be a God doesn’t delve. If nothing else, however, at least the movie has full frontal nudity equality.

For whatever foibles this sort of heart-on-the-sleeve science fiction may possess, I really wish we got more of it these days. Hard to be a God is exciting and sad, thought-provoking and, well, not exactly action packed, but there’s plenty of action. It tries really hard to be meaningful — not important, mind you, but meaningful, and there’s a difference. Hard to be a God is too pulpy to feel like a movie obsessed with its own importance. And there are a lot of pretty meaningless movies that think of themselves as being important, and I’ll take meaningful pulp over self-indulgent importance any day. If you’re a fan of old(ish) sci-fi, terrible wigs, heavy-handed but well-meaning philosophical musings, dudes in robes shouting and killing each other with swords and lasers, or just wondered what an episode of Star Trek would look like with more beheadings and spurting blood, Hard to be a God is a thoroughly entertaining time at the movies.