On the fringes of movieland, there have always been filmmakers who identify (in Günter Eich's phrase) as being sand, not oil, in the gears of the world. Aleksei German, dead in 2013 at 74, could be thought of as this tribe's most extreme rock star, in his work-life and in the movies themselves. He only completed six films in a career that stretched over half a century of bureaucratic battles, Soviet recalcitrance, and production tumult, being ejected from Lenfilm after each project and seeing his work get censored. Just look at these movies — they are unique, maddened explosions of eccentric auteurist will, designed to drive the mezzobrows nuts.
It seemed for years that his final work, Hard to Be a God, was a movie the gods didn't want to see finished. Six years in production, eight in post-, still being tweaked when German died, the film might be the most defiant final kiss-off a filmmaker ever offered to the world. It's also, incredibly, the first of his films to get an actual release in American theaters.
Based on a sci-fi novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (adaptees of Andrei Tarkovsky and Alexander Sokurov), Hard is set entirely in the rainy muck of another planet's Dark Ages, following closely behind (and sometimes through the eyes of) Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), an Earth-born scientist who'd come to the planet years earlier, and been taken as a god. (His legend revolves around how many enemies' ears he'd cut off, without killing a soul.) Stories are floated about translucent mine-workers and birds that steal silver, but we stay in the dark wallows with Rumata, who's alpha like a human rooster, raining coins on the rabble and dressing singularly in immaculate white.
Bulldozing around a Boschian maze of reeking ruins, animal parts, unruly fires, and deformed minions, Rumata is elliptically beset by intrigues, betrayals, and doubts about his godhood, most of which are only hinted at in the film's babbling shit-stream of post-dubbed dialogue. Eventually he's stalked by assassins. When his wild-child inamorata (Laura Pitskhelauri) is haphazardly taken out instead, Rumata finally arms up in an ungodlike manner ("God, if you exist," he mutters to himself, "stop me") and embarks on a climactic, but entirely unseen, massacre.
German's working title was The History of the Arkanar Massacre, but in three hours of spitting, fuming, up-your-nose mise-en-scène, such narrative clarity is not the priority. To evoke the movie's experience is to bust the ceiling on metaphors for mud, phlegm, and nausea; let's call it an epic lurch through the circle of the Inferno Dante left out, where we are buried chin-deep in wet manure. (You could think of it as Andrzej Zulawski doing John Cassavetes doing Terry Gilliam, but with a vengeance.) Characters constantly gab right into German's camera, as if it's Rumata, or someone else. There are so many ill-managed fires, swung swords, and thrown heaps of sludge that you worry for the health of the cast — who do not look as though they bathed during the entire six years of filming.
German had always made movies as if a single scene or frame must be forced to contain three or four times as much raw stuff as it could handle; the evocation of life's massive chaos, in layers of action and in long roving takes, only allows story threads to weave in and out, briefly glimpsed and often boiling off-screen. His topical territory had until now been life under Stalin in all of its deranged tensions, and with the passage of decades each new film was twice as harried and combustible as that which preceded it. His last, Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998), was by any measure a monster, a tyrannosaur in your head.
But Hard to Be a God goes further — it's a gob in your eye the size of a blimp.
Textually, the setting's brutalist conflation between the far future and the distant past makes the film timeless, an elusive fable told with the viscous immediacy of a life on the diseased edge of civilization. German may have even gone too far, and passed right over the edge of coherence. Without the progression of story or the thorny context of Stalinism, this ultimate Germanic assault may have been made for the sake of its exhausting textures alone. But what textures: No one wreaked mayhem like German, and the cataract of imagery (a walking scaffold carried on the shoulders of 50 noosed men, a killing field scavenged by children and dwarves) already threatens to make the rest of 2015 look like child's play.