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Trudno byt' bogom

Entry updated 16 February 2017. Tagged: Film.

1. Film (1989; vt Hard To Be a God). Dovzhenko Studio/Halleluya Film GMBH/VO Sovexportfilm. Directed by Peter Fleischmann. Written by Fleischmann, Jean-Claude Carriere, Dal Orlov, based on Trudno byt' bogom (1964; trans as Hard to be a God 1973) by Arkady and Boris Strugatski. Cast includes Andrei Boltnev, Edward Dzentara, Alexander Filippenko, Ann Gautier, Mikhail Gluzsky, Werner Herzog and Christina Kaufmann. 120 minutes. Colour.

The most ambitious Soviet sf film to date, this Soviet/West German coproduction was four years in the making, and even so seems unfinished. Gorgeous sets, a good story (combining medieval swordfighting and futuristic Starships) and a distinguished international cast did, however, ensure its success in European cinemas. The Strugatskis' multilevelled moral drama has been simplified to the level of pure action. The focus is court intrigue on an underdeveloped planet where a group of secret agents/investigators from a highly developed Earth witness the rise of a kind of medieval fascism, led by the local Hitler, Reba. The protagonist, Rumata, camouflaged as an indigenous nobleman, is not allowed to involve himself in the planet's politics; he is the historical observer who must not interfere with the experiment (see Prime Directive). However, he and his friends do attempt to save local intellectuals from pogroms and, when Reba's men kill the native girl with whom Rumata is in love, the humanist Earthman takes to the sword. A failure for Strugatski fans and for those who enjoy serious sf, but a feast for lovers of sword-and-bluster combat and a sentimental love story. [VG]

2. Film (2013; vt Hard To Be a God). A Studio Sever, Russia 1 TV Channel production. Directed by Aleksei German; completed after his death by Aleksei German Jr and the elder German's wife and collaborator Svetlana Karmalita. Produced by Viktor Izvekov, Rushan Nasibulin. Written by Svetlana Karmalita. Cast includes Aleksandr Chutko, Evgeniy Gerchakov, Natalia Moteva, Yuriy Tsurilo, Dmitriy Vladimirov and Leonid Yarmolnik. Narrator: Vladimir Yumatov. 177 minutes. Black and white.

Not so much a remake of 1 as a long-gestating alternative adaptation of the novel, Trudno byt' bogom represents the culmination of almost half a century's effort on the part of its director. Aleksei German (1938-2013) originally planned to begin filming in 1968 but his directorial career was stalled by Soviet-era censorship. Principal photography eventually took place between 2000 and 2006, by which time German had acquired a formidable critical reputation based on the post-glasnost appearance of such films as My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1982). He died towards the end of the lengthy editing process, which was completed by his wife/screenwriter and son.

Though its story is essentially the same as that of 1, there is no hint of medieval romp in this brutal and immersive film. German shows little regard for conventional storytelling or the tolerances of his audience, and at least a sketchy familiarity with the premise of the novel is essential for navigating a plot that frequently and deliberately vanishes into the murk of the mise en scène. There is scarcely a moment when the screen is not filled with tactile, often squalid, invariably filthy detail reminiscent of the early work of Terry Gilliam, but – though shot through with bleak comedy, particularly in the form of the bombastic but doomed Baron Pampa (Tsurilo) – the film is unleavened by Pythonesque flippancy. The camera restlessly seeks out fresh cruelties and is often acknowledged by blank glances from bit players and passers-by, forcing the viewer into the uncomfortable position of active spectator in a world where much is shown but little explained.

Anchoring almost every scene against the overwhelming on-screen flow, Leonid Yarmolnik gives a fine, wry, haunted performance as Don Rumata, who is as bound into this ordeal as the audience. In one of many striking shots, Rumata smears his face with fresh blood from a particularly obscene instrument of torture/execution, a gesture that encapsulates the acts both of watching and living on this planet. This beautifully-made film about ugliness is an almost intolerably gruelling experience, deserving of multiple viewings that few viewers will be prepared to undertake. [DO]

see also: Russia.


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