In an unspecified future, a number of planets have been discovered that harbor life that closely resembles that on Earth. One of these worlds is Arkanar, muddling through a period of history that resembles Medieval Europe. 30 scientists infiltrate the population and observe the planet’s technological and sociological progress. But observation is all that’s allowed: the scientists must never, under any circumstances, interfere with the alien planet’s culture.
One of the scientists, posing as visiting nobleman Don Rumata, finds it hard to stay objective. After all, he is not witnessing ancient history, but real events. Under the regime of sinister Don Reba, the scientists and intellectuals of Arkanar are systematically tortured, terrorized and murdered. Frustrated that he has the power to act but cannot, Rumata must stand by as pogroms and purges threaten to destroy Arkanar’s future. But even if he could act, would it do any good? Doesn’t history — on any planet — always repeat itself?
Based on the 1964 novel by acclaimed Soviet science fiction writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Hard To Be a God was originally written as an allegory to the anti-intellectual purges of the Stalin era. Don Reba is a thinly-disguised version of Stalin’s brutal henchman Lavrenti Beria, and the novel was written amid the fear and uncertainty of Khrushchev’s reign.
In filmmaker Aleksey German’s hands, Arkanar is brought to life as a place of visually arresting squalor that can be hard to take; I can’t recall a depiction of medieval life that was more relentlessly grim. Arkanar is gray and rainy; mud and filth are everywhere. The people are dirty and unwell, often gaunt, toothless, half-starved, and more than half-crazy.
German had wanted to adapt Hard To Be a God to film for decades. Shooting on this production finally began in 2000 in the Czech Republic but was shut down and restarted a number of times, for various reasons. It took 13 years for the film to wrap, and German himself died before the film’s premiere at Cannes.
Fans of German’s movies will be happy with his final work, though anyone unfamiliar with the Strugatsky brothers’ book might find it somewhat difficult to follow. Grim and unrelenting, it’s also a mesmerizing and strangely beautiful film. –Michael Popham
HARD TO BE A GOD screens Monday and Tuesday, June 22 and 23 at 7:00. Tickets are $8.00, and you can purchase them here.