The opening abduction scene will make more sense eventually, and even then, it wasn’t until I started playing the commentary that I could say with any confidence what’s happening in the open. The household scene that follows quickly reminded that we’re in the hands of the Hard to be a God director – full of movement and talking, bustling activity in every corner of long roving camera takes.

Yuri is a military doctor in 1953, bald with a mustache, an important man who will be brought low by forces that we twenty-first-century non-Soviets can hardly fathom without audio explanation. It’s sure entertaining though, and practically as foul and brutish as God. Sound effects are good – dubbing is bad, but I’m constantly checking subtitles since the movie never shuts up for a second, so we’ll call it even.

Birdie!

Learned from the commentary: the movie is in two parts since they could get double budget if it was submitted as two films. One character with a cane umbrella would be seen as a hilarious foreigner by Russian audiences since he wears galoshes. There are major literature and poetry references throughout (I caught Viy and Sadko). German didn’t look through the camera viewfinder or select lenses, considered cinematographer Vladimir Ilin a co-author of the film, “the lighting cameraman has to be an artist too.”

The doctor gets home, but his son in voiceover says he never saw his father again… there was a double in the film, being trained what to say in case he was captured, and other doubles and siblings, so maybe I got some characters confused, and I only played the first hour of the commentary. It involves antisemitism, the death of Stalin, and a scandal called The Doctor’s Plot, which refuses to make sense no matter how much I read about it. To be clear though, the movie’s power comes through fine even not knowing what’s happening – in fact, I wonder if it’s the whole point not to know. “Poetry floats up in my memory like sailboats in the fog, along with salami.” The doctor ends up on a train, tormenting the abducted man from the opening scene, and looking intense:

German:

Another part of the population was starving in the gulag, but we ignored that reality; we only knew ours, and I can assure you that from that point of view, living in a totalitarian regime isn’t all bad. People who don’t want to know lead an adorable life. That’s why even today a lot of people in our country yearn for totalitarianism.

Heard this three-hour Russian movie fourteen years in the making was something incredible, and oh boy is it ever. Loooong roving black-and-white takes (with beyond-Russian Ark choreography), torrential rainfall, everything bleak and ugly but masterfully shot. Sounds like Bela Tarr, but it doesn’t feel like Bela Tarr. Tarr ultimately focuses on individuals, and this one seems more concerned with lovely filth.

There is a story, or a premise at least, but if you miss the first five minutes you’d be forgiven for never figuring that out. Don Rumata is from present-day Earth, one of a team of scientists sent to “another planet, about 800 years behind,” on which the Rennaisance never happened because dumb thugs murdered all the educated and artistic types. The intro is the last time any of this is mentioned – the rest follows Rumata as he wanders the horrors of this place, through filth and hunger and murder. There are other characters, and a bit of a plot – a Wikipedia summary of the source novel reveals that many of its characters and events were adapted in the film, but weren’t explained. I’m not an avid reader of Russian lit so probably won’t pick up the novel, but I’m excited to see there’s a 1990 film version which may be more comprehensible.

Story aside, this is both a slog of a plotless beast and a technical and tactile marvel. It seems postsynched since we only hear certain sounds among all the chaos, but if so it’s done quite well. Also: a hedgehog and much bird tossing (including owls).

C. Marsh:

Hard to Be a God, by design, is not a dynamic film. Its consistency is intended to be exhausting. Over time, like Rumata, we’d rather be anywhere else. .. German seems less interested in the science-fiction dimension of the source material than in the central idea it poses: the Renaissance was a fluke. Cruelty and brutality are the default modes of existence.

I’m happy that Marsh mentions Monty Python and the Holy Grail in his review, since it was on my mind as well.

Intriguing Russian and German titles mentioned in Olaf Möller’s Cinema Scope article:
Khrustalyov, My Car! (1988)
Workers’ Settlement (1965)
My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1982)
Es ist nicht leicht, ein Gott zu sein (1990)
Days of Eclipse (1988)
The Fall of Otrar (1991)
Until the End of the World (1991, the 5-hour version)
The Ugly Swans (2006)
Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (1979)
Lenin’s Guard (1965)