Directed by: Aleksey German.
Written by: Aleksey German and Svetlana Karmalita based on the novel by Arkadiy Strugatskiy and Boris Strugatskiy.
Starring: Natalya Moteva (Ari), Aleksandr Chutko (don Reba), Evgeniy Gerchakov (Budakh), Ramis Ibragimov (Muga), Zura Kipshidze (Zurab), Valentin Golubenko (Arata), Leonid Timtsunik (Arima).
Aleksey German’s Hard to a Be a God is a three slog of human depravity – a slow march to hell, which starts out in a miserable place, and then basically stays there for its entire running time, before the ending, which gets even worse. The plot is relatively straight forward and simple – yet the film is often confusing, because German doesn’t seem very interest in the plot, or the characters, or anything other than the human misery he is portraying. Because German was Russian (he died, before he completed editing this film – it was completely by his close associates), and because he tried to get it made for 40 years, and then worked it for 10, the film has been described as both an attack on Stalin and an attack on Putin, or both - the more things change, the more they stay the same. But there is no specific attacks here, and I think German is reaching for something more universal.
The film was based on a sci-fi novel, and indeed, the film does have a sci-fi premise, even if it doesn’t look like it (and if you were to walk in 10 minutes late, you’d never guess it). In the future, scientists have discovered lots of new planets – including the one where the action of the movie takes place on, which is approximately 800 years before the current time on earth (somewhere in the middle ages), but is otherwise exactly like earth. Some scientists have been sent to observe this society, which should be on the brink of their own Renaissance, but they’ve been there for years now, and no Renaissance seems to be coming. They are supposed to remain neutral – not take sides, not try and goose things along at all, etc. And the main character has abided by those rules for years – but he decides, fuck it, he’s going to do something. He’s tired of watching the best and brightest minds executed by the small minded, fearful people – and decides to do something about it. Of course, as the title suggests, things do not work like he plans – and he only succeeds in making things far worse.
That’s basically, the entirety of the plot of How to Be a God – which isn’t much interested in it. The film is brilliantly well made by German – a series of steadicam tracking shots that follow the main character from one horrific incident to another, one carnival sideshow freak to the next. These shots are brilliantly executed, and you can see why German was so well liked during his career – even if he never got the attention of a Tarkovsky.
Yet, the shots are like the plot of the movie – the same damn thing over and over again for three hours. I understand that is, in many ways, the point of the movie – that nothing ever changes, that human nature is doomed to repeat its cycles of violence and ugliness, forever, etc. But I also know that German made that point clear sometime in the first hour, and then just kept on going and going and going with it. The sci-fi premise is reference only at the beginning and the end (as I said, walk in 10 minutes, and you’ll no idea that the main character is from the future – or that he is supposed to be the hero, since he’s as big as dick as anyone in the film). The film finally gives into that depravity that has been bubbling under the surface for its entire running time in the end – and it’s a relief, but not a visceral one – one that just makes you glad you can stop watching now.
To some, How to Be a God is a masterpiece. I understand why I guess, but I also understand that the film isn’t for me. I don’t necessarily need to see a three hour film that wallows in human depravity to get that humans suck. And when the film doesn’t really seem to have anything else to offer other than that observation, I lost interest pretty quickly. The film is always a treat to look at – German clearly knew how to make a film. I just wish he made a better one – one that offered as much insight as it does technical prowess.