The past is another planet – they do things differently there. This monochrome dream-epic of medieval cruelty and squalor is a non-sci-fi sci-fi; a monumental, and monumentally mad film that the Russian film-maker Alexei German began working on around 15 years ago. It was completed by his son, Alexei German Jr, after the director’s death in 2013. If ever a movie deserved the title folie de grandeur it is this, placed before audiences on a take-it-or-leave-it basis: maniacally vehement and strange, a slo-mo kaleidoscope of chaos and also a relentless prose poem of fear, featuring three hours’ worth of non-sequitur dialogue, where each line is an imagist stab with nothing to do what has just been said.
Hard to Be a God is based on the 1964 novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, whose later work Roadside Picnic was filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1979 as Stalker. It is set in what appears to be a horrendous central European village of the middle ages, as imagined by Hieronymus Bosch, where grotesquely ugly and wretched peasants are condemned to clamber over each other for all eternity, smeared in mud and blood.
The most startling lines are those in which people complain about the lack of a Renaissance: “Where’s the art? Where’s the Renaissance?” moans one. Just as in Narnia it is always winter and never Christmas, so in Hard to Be a God it is always the middle ages and never the Renaissance. Cultural and human advances never arrive in this alternative Earth, and what we are seeing is not the middle ages but the present day.
This is an ahistorical hell of arrested development, and also the film’s satirical core: whatever unimaginable advances have been necessary for interplanetary travel, they have brought us back to this dark-age swamp – and then been forgotten. Hard to Be a God creates its own uncanny world: it is beautiful, brilliant and bizarre.—The Guardian