Mar 5, 2014

Hard to Be a God (1989)

While making a number of popular award-winning films, German auteur Peter Fleischmann (Disaster aka Unheil, Dorothea's Revenge aka Dorotheas Rache) never quite achieved the fame and glory that his celluloid compatriots of the German New Cinema like Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder did, as he is pretty much completely unknown outside of Germany despite the fact that he has made a couple films outside of his homeland. First coming to prominence for his slave-morality-stained leftist redneck-lynch-mob-themed anti-heimat work Hunting Scenes From Bavaria (1969) aka Jagdszenen aus Niederbayern, Fleischmann would eventually develop a more polished Hollywood-style that was quite apparent in his dystopian sci-fi-horror flick Die Hamburger Krankheit (1979) aka The Hamburg Syndrome—a work that manages to combine anti-Heimat and arthouse aesthetics with the horror films of George A. Romero and David Cronenberg—but it would be the gigantic West German-French-Soviet co-production Hard to Be a God (1989) aka Es ist nicht leicht ein Gott zu sein, with the screenplay being mostly penned by Buñuel’s late era screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty), where he attempted to make an all-out blockbuster European film, which would ultimately prove to be a failure as the filmmaker would never again have the opportunity to work on such a large film again and since then has only directed three small documentaries. Based on the 1964 sci-fi novel of the same name written by Russian Jewish Soviet science fiction writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who are probably best known by cinephiles as writing a novel that would act as the basis for Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Stalker (1979), Hard to Be a God is a sort of epic dystopian arthouse sci-fi-action-adventure-fantasy flick with an eclectic international all-star European cast that includes, among others, Bavarian wild man auteur Werner Herzog (Even Dwarfs Started Small, Stroszek), French counter-culture star Pierre Clémenti (Sweet Movie, Steppenwolf), German diva Christine Kaufmann (Mädchen in Uniform, Egon Schiele – Exzess und Bestrafung), Russian ‘People’s Artist’ Aleksandr Filippenko (The Career of Arturo Ui, The Master and Margarita), and Viennese actress Birgit Doll (Tales from the Vienna Woods, The Seventh Continent). Made during the later stages of Perestroika, Hard to Be a God is an anti-fascist sci-fi flick with the unthinkable, Conan the Barbarian-esque ‘fascistic’ violence and aesthetics, not to mention a miserable and misanthropy-inspiring neo-medieval realm that is quite unbecoming for a European film directed by a quasi-arthouse director. Shot in the Ukraine and Soviet Central Asia over a troubled six-year period, Hard to Be a God has the feel of centuries upon centures of Slavic serf suffering and even concludes with a mass extermination that puts Schindler’s List (1993) to shame.  On top of that, Christine Kaufmann plays a carnally bestial babe who sheds some flesh, and Herr Herzog dies on screen after being literally stabbed in the back.

 It is the future and a dude with a flat affect named Anton (Edward Zentara) works for the ‘Institute of Experimental History’ on planet Earth. He is sent on an exploratory space expedition to a backwards neighboring planet where the people are still in the dark ages. Under the alias of a primitive aristocrat named ‘Rumata of Estoria,’ Anton goes to the barbarian city of Arkanar to check  up on one of the people who works for his institute, ‘Mita’ aka ‘Cyril’ (Werner Herzog), who lost contact with his team on planet Earth not long ago. Like Anton, Mita was only supposed to ‘observe and report’ what he saw while on the planet and not interfere with the inhabitants (which means allowing them to kill and rape each other and whatnot), but apparently his bleeding heart humanism has gotten him into a bit of trouble and thus he has been imprisoned. When Anton arrives in Arkanar, he meets the eccentric King (Pierre Clémenti), as well as his entourage, which includes an evil scheming minister named ‘Reba’ (Aleksandr Filippenko) who is described as “a contrarious man. He can’t even bow properly,” the wild and wanton royal whore Okana (Christine Kaufmann), the Prince, and various other exceedingly eccentric characters. Shortly after finding Mita, Anton realizes that his fellow countryman has gone soft and now wants to fight for the rights of the pitiful sub-peasant citizens of Arkanar, which is a big ‘no, no’ with the Institute of Experimental History, who do not want their employees messing with the history and progress of a underdeveloped planet in its dark age because, as one scientist states, “We had found our sister planet, the mirror of ourselves in a distant past. We must never dim this mirror.” When Mita is killed for being named as a conspirator against the King (Mita made the fatal mistake of involving Mita in the revolution, as the minister merely uses it as an opportunity to liquidate his rivals and grab more power), Anton is forced to take his place and semi-permanently take up the archaic aristocratic persona of ‘Rumata of Estoria,’ which is the name of a nobleman who died long ago in a swamp. Through his research, Anton learns that Mita was involved with attempting to create the first printing press in Arkanar with the help of an inventor named Hauk (Mikhail Gluzskiy), but unconventional ideas and literacy are against the law in the unenlightened barbarian world. Meanwhile, Anton helps save the life of a ‘proto-bolshevik’ revolutionary of sorts named Suren (Hugues Quester), who local soldiers attempt to kill for reading revolutionary political propaganda in public in an attempt to rile up the citizenry. 

 In terms of staying in contact with his civilized yet emotionally sterile earth friends, Anton transmits exactly what he witnesses to them in real-time via his eyeball, so they know whether he is in danger or not. Ultimately, Anton hopes to find a local genius named Budach (Andrei Boltnev) from the neighboring city of Irukan as he is apparently the only real hope for getting the people out of the Dark Age, but rather unfortunately, the scholar is purportedly locked up in a dungeon of torture run by the King’s psychopathic minister Reba. On top of that, Anton witnesses firsthand what the locals think of science after discovering the corpse of a scientist who was attempting to a build a telescope.  Reba also has his men kill inventor Hauk, thus killing any chance of the printing press being realized.  Among other things, Anton screws the King’s feisty whore Okana and eventually starts a lurid love affair with his sassy servant Kyra (Anne Gautier), but she is later tortured and murdered by sadistic minister Reba for helping the earthling. Hoping to consolidate complete power, Reba also poisons the half-insane King, but luckily Anton helps to save the young Prince before he can be disposed of as well. With the help of a strong man named Baron Pampa (Elgudzha Burduli) and revolutionary Suren, Anton wages a revolt against Reba and his giant armies, but his earth buddies do not appreciate his attempt at tampering with history, so they interfere. In the end, Anton’s friends from the institute head to Arkanar and the primitive people of the city mistake their spaceship for God. Meanwhile, revolutionary Suren gets a hold of one of Anton’s futuristic laser weapons and pulls a Trotsky by exterminating virtually every single person in his presence. Of course, with his mission finished, Anton goes back to earth, but luckily his savage girlfriend/servant Kyra and the Prince manage to survive the apocalyptic ordeal. 

 Not unsurprisingly, the Strugatsky brothers’ main request for a film version of their novel Hard to Be a God was that the director be a Soviet, but of course they did not get their wish, even if kraut auteur Peter Fleischmann is a bit of an anti-Occidental commie himself whose works like Hunting Scenes From Bavaria and The Hamburg Syndrome are more critical of West Germany than the average Soviet propaganda flick. Apparently, the Strugatsky brothers also found Fleischmann to be a rather intolerable person to work with (judging by the less than thinly veiled propaganda in his films, I can certainly see why), so they abandoned the film and publicly trashed it when it was released, which ultimately led to a second adaptation of Hard to Be a God directed by Soviet veteran director Aleksei German and produced by Lenfilm. Quite curiously, like Fleischmann’s 1989 version, German’s adaptation of Hard to Be a God, which features a whopping 177-minute running time, also suffered a long and troubled production as a project that starting filming in 2000, but would not premiere until 2013, with the director dying before its premiere (German had finished principal photography in 2006 and spent the rest of the years editing the film to perfection, with his wife and son taking over post-synchronization when he died). Personally, I have never been a huge science fiction fan, but Fleischmann’s Hard to Be a God seems more like a quasi-kitschy take on HBO’s Game of Thrones with arthouse actors than a mere fanciful masturbation aid for virginal man-boys who fantasize about living in an imaginary utopian future where their autistic tendencies will be better suited. Additionally, aside from possibly The Hamburg Syndrome, Hard to Be a God is easily Fleischmann’s best cinematic work to date, as it is not as drenched in the sort of dreaded Frankfurt School-approved messages that unfortunately plague a good portion of his films. By no means resembling anything that can be described as a masterpiece, Hard to Be a God ultimately makes for an excellent fantasy flick for Eurocentric cinephiles that find Luke Skywalker to be a pansy momma’s boy and cannot stomach the cardboard cynicism of Harrison Ford as Hans Solo, not to mention the fact that it puts David Lynch’s convoluted celluloid mess Dune (1984) to abject shame.  While undoubtedly an anti-fascist allegory with the last days of the Cold War lingering in the background, I thought Hard to Be a God worked better as a cautionary tale about the unexpected consequences when an advanced civilization (i.e. Europe) begins meddling with the affairs of more archaic peoples (i.e. Africa and a good percentage of the so-called third world).  After all, Western weaponry has only made ancient African tribal feuds more genocidal and all the aid given to the doubly dark continent has only guaranteed that there will be all the more Sub-Saharans that will be starving with each new generation. Indeed, the title ‘Hard to Be a God’ is practically interchangeable with the phrase ‘The White Man’s Burden.’  Socio-political contexts aside, Hard to Be a God must also be given credit for featuring what is probably the most aesthetically repulsive wigs in cinema history, which can be forgiven since it is a work that manages to feature the sort of scenario you might expect from an episode of Star Trek, albeit with a bit of Teutonic testicular fortitude and ultra-violence.

-Ty E

1 comment:

jervaise brooke hamster said...

I like the picture where the geezer is about to go down on the gorgeous sexy bird.