Thursday, January 22, 2015

Hard to Be a God (Trudno byt' bogom, Aleksei German, 2013)

I, Mud

Aleksei German's adaptation of the Strugatsky Brothers' 1964 novel is to put it mildly a labor of love: six years actual shooting (from 2000 to 2006), another six of post-production, with German himself dying in 2013 (the film was completed under the supervision of his wife and son); more, it's possible he'd been thinking of adapting the book through the length of his long if sparse career (five feature films, from 1967 onwards)--perhaps longer (shortly after the book's publication, if you believe some folks).

Critic Olaf Moller gives a detailed account of the film's painful genesis, not to mention some of the context against which the film was made (including a 1990 film directed by Peter Fleischmann). A massive effort, comparable perhaps to long development period of projects like Welles' 1966 Chimes at Midnight (first staged on Broadway as Five Kings in 1939) or Isao Takahata's The Tale of Princess Kaguya (eight years in the making, according to Japan Times critic Mark Schilling--and also (considering his advanced age) possibly Takahata's final feature).

The story's simple enough: Earth has found a sister planet, in terms of technological progress roughly eight hundred years behind; it has secretly planted agents in that planet to observe and record. Anton, posing as the long-dead nobleman Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), is gifted with a near-magical sword that can cut through anything, and a fighting technique that has earned him the reputation of being the most feared swordsman alive. Rumata's dilemma: he is both moved by the plight of the people about him and strictly forbidden to interfere by his Earth-based superiors.

(If the plot sounds familiar, it's not just your imagination, though it's difficult to prove anything--the novel was published in English in 1973 (Theodore Sturgeon was a fan), and by then Star Trek had been cancelled some four years. But who knows what Roddenberry was reading or hearing about back in the mid-'60s? Who's to say he wasn't thinking along similar lines?)

Little of this comes through in German's film; if anything the director seems to have sunk the plot deep into the general muck that pervades throughout. Fleischmann's version was a straightforward full-color adaptation done along the lines of Conan the Barbarian, with not a little Highlander thrown in; German's is three hours long and in black and white, the decision to go monochrome crucial to the film's look. Mud and blood and manure and vomit (and other substances too disgusting to mention) are rendered equivalent and indistinguishable, spurting from or being smeared into or seeping slowly out of various wounds and faces and fore-and-aft orifices of the people onscreen. Skins are equally textured, with boils and tumors erupting from cheeks and foreheads; teeth are either rotten or snaggled or missing altogether; bones twist in every direction except straight out. As if in response--or celebration--of their abnormalities the people somersault, turn cartwheels, move on one, two, three, four limbs at once, from mincing little steps to bounding great leaps.  

(The faces and bodies vary, but the eyes are hauntingly alike: wide and desperate and full of life, yes, but also of suffering.)  

German shoots in long takes, the camera gliding down hallways and across rooms, shouldering aside curtains of hemp rope and hanging armor, past fools and sycophants either leering maniacally or poking spearheads at the lenses.  Think termite or ant colony, not looking from high above but inside, in one of their endless tunnels, soldiers with clicking jaws teeming about you; if your skin crawls at the thought, the effect is intentional.

People die in grotesque and often unwatchable ways--we don't see the actual passing, but catch a glimpse of their remains as the camera glides by. A girl's face suddenly sprouts an intricately barbed arrow; a concoction of squash seeds in syrup is ladled over hung corpses (Why? To attract birds,perhaps encourage carrion feeders?); a man explains the workings of a ten-foot-long spring-loaded spiked superdildo to Don Rumata, whose hand when touching its length comes away covered with a thick dark coating. 

Occasionally German pulls back to take in an entire location, but not for our relief--or at least, not exactly. Early on the camera pans about what looks like a sinkhole/cliff face/construction site, with scaffolding shoring up high muddy walls, surrounding a pool of indeterminate color. Two men start knocking down a little outhouse at pool's edge; one yanks away the wood flooring with its heavily crusted hole and--horrific little touch here--a flock of sparrows whir out. A pole is sunk into the outhouse's pit, a mark cut into the chunky coating's edge; the man walks about with the marked pole, measuring people for upside-down insertion.  

You think of the junky clutter in Welles' Mr. Arkadin; you think of the filthy sewage, the physical and moral corruption in his Touch of Evil. German attempts to do Welles better, more explicitly; the attempt is honorable if not fully successful (Welles did more with less).

As Rumata, Yarmolnik has to hold our attention for almost the entire one hundred and seventy-seven minutes; he does so with a carefully constructed performance, full of mysterious little gestures and puzzling details. His Rumata is constantly sick, either coughing or sniffling or wiping away snot and phlegm (considering what he's constantly breathing, not a big surprise); he's either heavily drunk or coming out of a bad hangover, his walk more confident than careful (he's from a more advanced civilization, after all), pitched halfway between a swagger and a stagger. On occasion he experiences a heavy nosebleed--viscous gore pouring out like a spout (Why? One reads of telekinetic powers triggering heavy bleeding, but Rumata doesn't seem to exert any kind of power, just leaks at seemingly random moments).

By film's end Rumata's superiors attempt an extraction. In Fleischmann's film this meant a giant saucer swooping down from the sky to put everyone to sleep, then spirit him away; in German's film the saucer is replaced by a horsecart, the flight through space by a creaky ride across the snowy landscape. The images make you wonder: are Rumata's people all that technologically advanced? Are the Strugatskys (through German, or perhaps it's German alone?) pulling our collective leg, pretending to have set the film in another planet when we were on Earth all along (now where do you think he got that plot twist?)? What distinguishes Rumata from everyone else?

Two gestures, I submit (skip the rest of this article if you intend to watch the film!). Rumata tends to smear stuff on his face. He'll touch walls, floor, other people, the superdildo, and his hand will come away with mud, mucus, blood of various colors and viscosity, which he spreads across his cheeks, eyelids, nose. 

Call it an infantile moment, a bestial impulse to draw stuff close for inspection by nose and tongue. Sometimes he sniffs his fingers first, drips it on upturned face, as if to better taste, to savor the elusive flavor--in my book surest proof he's from a higher civilization, as he exults in the sheer tactility of German's painstakingly constructed and realized world. Much of what he touches is repulsive, noisome, obscene; it's also an unmistakeable reminder of both the wonders and horrors of life.

Second gesture is his occasional washing--an act of (much-needed) hygiene, of purification, of sobering up after a serious drunk. Late in the film his fellow humans find him by a pool, presumably cleaning up after a massacre; this wash however has a different feel, has the finality of an actor back in his dressing room, removing makeup. 

Rumata speaks with not a little bitterness (I don't want to go!), but has no choice. His regret implies two things: he finds it difficult to abandon his friends, the people he has observed, mingled with, fought, occasionally fucked. He finds it difficult to give up the role--the power, the sense of superiority, of an all-important mission to be accomplished. He may leave, his face washed clean of the world, but he takes the memory with him, and his feelings come out through music piped out of the bizarre little clarinet he carries away with him. Lovely melody; not genius but heartfelt, not a little haunting.

What distinguishes him? In short: his inexplicable love of this world, his need to occasionally purify himself of said world, his ability to sublimate both love and loathing through art. His perverse sentiment, best expressed I would think by paraphrasing Marlowe: "Why this is hell, nor do I want to be out of it." A great film, one of the best of 2014.

First published in Businessworld, 1.15.15

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