QUESTION 1: To start I want to talk about plot, or lack thereof. Hard to Be a God is three hours long. It’s well-known that the movie is based on a novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, although it incorporates little other than the premise: at some point in the future, a scientist named Anton descends to the surface of a planet of humans (not the Earth) that roughly corresponds to the Earth’s medieval period, around 1200 AD in Europe. He’s condemned to wander, waiting for the Renaissance to erupt, although it seems like it may never occur. (This planet, it seems, is stuck in the Middle Ages.) And in the movie we mostly watch this scientist—a nobleman—wander with his slaves and various followers.
So here’s my first question: does this movie have a plot? Does it have one in the conventional sense, in some other sense, or perhaps in a sense that perhaps pertains just to this film? Or is this movie, which is three hours long, plotless?
Rosie: After first watching the film, my initial reaction was that it lacked a conventional plot or narrative, instead concentrating more on the breakdown of Anton’s residual sense of “superiority” to the planet’s inhabitants in a characteristically abstract manner. I still feel that way, but after thinking more about the film, and reading others’ perceptions, I see that there is a structure of events in place that inform and encourage Anton’s detachment from his prior life. Certain things have to happen, and he has to partake in certain behaviors, to be swallowed by the sense of nihilism that I found to pervade the film.
Jeffrey: Maybe I’m lucky in that I wasn’t primed to think about this in terms of plot. The comparisons I’d heard for Hard to Be a God director Aleksei German were Andrei Tarkovsky (whose films hang on a shred of plot) and Béla Tarr (who seems even less concerned by story). In that context, I had expected to see a film that would just dive right into the miasma of base human experience. And I’d guessed that such a film would only move from episode to disconnected episode, as in the vignettes of Roy Andersson’s black-comedy trilogy, or with a roving camera through strange surroundings, as in the single 99-minute take of Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark. Of course Hard to Be a God is reminiscent of both, but utterly different: a film where we expect people to grow and change, but where they never actually seem to do so.
In the end, though, I couldn’t ascribe any plot to Hard to Be a God. It was an experience I faded in and out of. There were times when I felt like I could drift off and come back, without losing anything (although this isn’t true, since there are occasional conversations and events well worth keeping track of). The last time I felt this way was when I was studying Jackson Pollock. The critic Allan Kaprow said of Pollock’s larger works that “his mural-scale paintings ceased to become paintings and became environments . . . [which] resulted in our being confronted, assaulted, sucked in.” It’s a description I’d happily attribute to Hard to Be a God: the film is an environment we enter, one we can only experience and become enmeshed within. But even as I feel that there’s no plot I still worry that somehow I’m ignoring a vital aspect of the film . . .
Jeva: So I think there are two questions here, which can be broken down into looking at the film as plot vs. story. If a plot is what actually happens in the film, then I think Hard to Be a God is very densely plotted. At any given moment something is happening in every corner of the frame, and as a viewer I feel like there is an entire universe that exists out there, and that I’m only seeing the part of it that the camera is turned toward. There are so many voices and characters and choreographed micro-events that I wouldn’t agree Hard to Be a God is plotless, per se. But is there a story? That, I think, is much thinner—in fact, pulling the movie up on Netflix and reading the two-sentence teaser pretty much tells me everything that happens in the beginning-to-end of the movie. If a story is literally what unfolds from minute zero to hour-2-minute-57, then I’m less sure there is truly a “story” being told. In that sense, Hard to Be a God is less interested in a straightforward tradition of storytelling, being more like Sokurov or Tarr, whom Jeffrey brought up.
I haven’t seen German’s earlier work, but I’ve been told that his movies get progressively harder and harder to follow, culminating in the quasi-experimental thing that is Hard to Be a God. I think that deterioration of “narrative” is interesting, but that it isn’t done at the disposal of plot.
Janice: I agree that there are a couple different questions here, relating to differences between plot and story and even narrative. I tend to relate thinking about plot to Propp or David Antin, in terms of patterns of sequences of events. In this way, a lot happens in the film, as Jeva has already described. It surprised me actually how much happens. Based on the “marketing” of the film, I expected more slowness and endurance in terms of lack of action. In Tarr, we are often waiting for things to happen, and often nothing does. In Tarkovsky, even when there is little story, there is a definite momentum toward an end, as in Stalker. But in Hard to Be a God, I was surprised at the amount of interaction between the characters, how much movement, how much stuff was happening in each shot. Again agreeing with Jeva, there might not be a story here that can be easily summarized, but there is an excess of action and gesture. Part of what is so interesting about this film in terms of all that is happening is how we might also distinguish between narrative and narrativization; there isn’t the same sense of closure while providing a particular presentation of reality here. There are gaps in understanding, and then there are gaps that are filled so utterly it’s hard to navigate out of the mud. I thought of Tarkovsky, yes, there is very much a poetry to the camerawork and the gaze, but also Herzog, the almost slapstick interactions between characters that often don’t have real impact on the “story,” yet the film here is about the piling on of these aggressions, gestures, failures, footsteps, coughs, rain, etc. There’s an early dialogue in the film that seems to represent some of these ideas:
“Are you wearing my boots again?”
“It always happens to you.”
Scott: I just want to call out/respond to a few themes here that have grabbed my attention. Like Jeffrey, this film reminded me a lot of Russian Ark, to the point that I had to keep reminding myself that it was not, in fact, just one take (as is Russian Ark, a 99-minute film that is just one very long take), even though it often felt like that to me (and I think the stitching of the film does work to give that impression). Perhaps more than that, HTBAG reminds me of Russian Ark in the sense that there’s always a lot to look at and think about in any given frame (as Jeva and Janice have discussed) but the main “story” seems just to be this camera following around a stranger in a strange land. And not to get too crazily into this comparison, but I do wonder if there is something Russian about this, as these films were both products of the weird, post-communist (and maybe also post-capitalist) 2000s in Russia, and they both do seem to engage with elements of Russia’s deep history in novel ways. Russia has always been a place that has had a very unique viewpoint on “the West” and its systems, its cultures, its art and aesthetics, and I think that after everything that has happened to Russia in the postwar era, that perspective has only grown more unique. So I do read this film as something of a critique of capitalism and Western filmmaking, insofar as it creates a pre-capitalist world that is just so completely at odds with anything that today happens to order and structure society.
One last point of comparison, I think Janice is right on the money with the observation that these shots are very densely filled with interactions and activities, which really distinguishes it from Tarkovsky or Béla Tarr, where the shots tend to have a much more austere feeling to them. And I do think this is important, as the world that German is conjuring—a medieval world—is a world that probably was far more chaotic and full of strangeness than the world that we’re accustomed to inhabiting.
Getting back to plot, there is a story here—something about a doctor that our resident “god” is in search of—but honestly I found it almost impossible to follow that thread to any extent, and I only really learned the “story” when I read the film’s Wikipedia page. I got the feeling that the film might actually want to make this story opaque, becaue the real story here is the incredibly thick medieval texture that German has built. And, again, I think this is to the point of creating a world where logic and activities do not move in the ways that we tend to think of them in a hyper-efficient, highly normalized, capitalist society.
QUESTION 2: Lately I’ve been getting a lot into the thought and films of the Chilean/French filmmaker Raúl Ruiz, and I think he has a lot to add to this discussion. His movies are beyond bizarre—something along the lines of Buñel crossed with Borges with a lot of Monty Python thrown in—and he also left us a three-book series where he tried to nail down his poetics of cinema.
One of the guiding lights to Ruiz’s view of cinema is the utter rejection of “central conflict theory”—i.e., the mainstay of Hollywood films where the entire thing is structured by a main obstacle that the protagonist needs to overcome. Ruiz seems to disdain this entirely, and often he appears guided by nothing more than a desire to make films that show the world how many other ways a film might be built. So I think the potential here for Hard to Be a God is pretty clear (and again, maybe points the way toward a unique “Russianness” here).
One of the things Ruiz is fascinated by is Adorno’s idea of “the photographic unconscious”—that is, all those incidental things that just happen to be in the background of a photo (that stray cat, a lamppost, the hot dog vendor over there) and that may represent a sort of counter-photo to the photo of your partner that you were actually taking. Ruiz thinks film can also have a sort of unconscious in this way, and I think this has some very provocative applications to a film like HTBAG, where so much is happening behind and around the ostensible “protagonist.”
Here’s one thing Ruiz says about the cinematic unconscious:
Every film incorporates a teeming vision. Every edited sequence has a multiplicity of possible angles, which are usually suggested and which usually serve as a counterpoint to the sequence we are actually viewing. But in our lives these possible montages are uncontrollable—because they are necessarily different for every spectator. They form a type of photographic unconscious . . . which we could call “potential montage.”
So I’d like to ask you all what you think the “unconscious” of this film is, and what this unconscious might “want.” (And by that same token, what does the “conscious” of this film want?—a thing that I’ve had a very hard time figuring out.) And last of all, would it be more productive to think of this film as something that doesn’t exactly have a conscious/unconscious so much as just a lot of inchoate happenings without any ostensible central seam, something a little
like this painting?
Janice: I think very much in relation to the previous question, but also agreeing with you Scott in that there is perhaps something Russian here, I think that there is indeed a pull away from any traditional narrative. This pull away from linear narrative or central narrative or even a grand thesis seems really Russian to me in terms of literature, film, even philosophy. At the same time though, this seems different from Ruiz’s fascination with a collage-like sensibility, this layering of images, emotions. There’s an expectation set from the beginning in a Ruiz film that what we’re about to witness is at odds with traditional narrative, we’re sort of trained from the beginning on what to look out for and how to watch the film. But in Hard to Be a God, there is a very certain expectation set. The opening shot of the film is absolutely stunning. It’s epic in its scope, the slow pan over the landscape resembles a Bruegel painting.
We start to hear this voice-over relate to us the epic proportions of this world and the story we are about to watch. “This is not Earth . . . it’s another planet,” we are told. Immediately I’m getting resonances of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. The cinematography is set up to be majestic. There is a certain glow to the landscape. Then we see faces covered in mud, filth, literal shit. All of this grime is the same color. There’s no difference in this film between mud and dirt and blood and shit. But even the filth is poetic. It rains, as if poured from above. We’re then introduced to the potential son of a God. His introduction is absolutely stunning, a child is crying, he was not on Earth but a different planet, he is the illegitimate son of a local God, he was born from the God’s mouth, not everyone believed this, but everyone was on guard. This is the set-up. The film sets up expectations for something grand. And yet, we get nearly three hours of literally mud and shit and seemingly pointless antics. The film can only end in disappointment. It can’t meet the expectations set by the opening. The entire film, as it even states, is “just a reaction to something that didn’t happen.” In this film that is so much about excess, it also seems that hardly anything happens. In a way the film seems to be about disappointment. It is indeed disappointing to be a God.
Rosie: I’m not familiar with the films of Ruiz so I can’t speak to any similarities or differences in that respect. But with regards to the “uncontrollable” “potential montage(s)” he speaks of, I think this notion of the “uncontrollable” is very pertinent to HTBAG. It is a film that deprives the spectator of control; it overwhelms us with visuals, as Jeva and Janice observed, making it almost impossible to absorb the mise en scène of any given frame. In this way, the background battles with the foreground for our attention, limiting our ability to focus on the frame’s center.
I think this could be true of the film’s conscious/unconscious interaction. It cannot—or more likely will not—find a balance between background and foreground, between tangible “vision” and a latent, deliberate refusal of such. Anton may be the protagonist, but he is rarely alone, and never present without distractions, suggesting he lacks any central significance in and of himself. The film’s “dialogues” more often takes the form of fractured monologues, aphorisms, and observations, leading the spectator in any direction except toward logical completion. Whatever privilege is offered by Anton’s deity is negated by his close, sometimes intimate proximity at all times to figures abjected both literally—with blood, feces, spittle, and so on—and symbolically, in their status as women, the poor, the disabled, and for whom life is much, much harder, but are denied the camera’s attention.
I see how it is tempting to compare the film to Bruegel’s work, or perhaps the triptychs of Bosch, with their senseless, gratuitous and absurd violence—Bosch’s works do contain a narrative, and a consciousness, however simplistic, and I think that is true for HTBAG. However, it is also true that, in both cases, any narrative becomes overwhelmed by the parts of the whole, and consequently is consumed by incoherence.
Jeffrey: I’m intrigued by this suggested binary of “conscious” and “unconscious,” and I’m reminded very strongly here of how Zadie Smith, in her fantastic essay on Christian Marclay’s The Clock, differentiated between time depicted intentionally and time caught by accident; the difference between a woman hitting an alarm displaying 6:00 and a man walking past Big Ben at 4:37. This difference is well worth considering to the extent that Hard to Be a God seems to have no truly-unconscious unconscious. When I think of the film, I think of each shot as being intentionally constructed; there is a rhythm and reason to all the people in the background and their activities. Many shots are filmed at a particular angle that seems wholly premeditated. And the objects that jut into the foreground and obscure our view of the main action are so jarring that German clearly has insisted on their presence. So, in the strictest sense, Hard to Be a God is a film that feels and seems to be thoroughly conscious at every level. As if German were the God of the film’s title, he has labored and meticulously arranged and deployed every item in the frame, and he forces us to survey his creation—but what a massive, overwhelming creation that seems to forget its creator, utterly absorbed with its own existence!
But I’m being simplistic here, and giving the director perhaps too much credit. Let’s look at what purports to be unconscious in the film—that is, what an unprepared moviegoer would consider to be the conscious and unconscious elements at play. The film has very little ongoing plot, but many micro-stories and interactions. More often than not, it’s these stories that constitute the conscious portions of the film: conversations we want to follow, attacks we feel the urge to see to their bloody end. And so the unconscious components prove to be doubly so: components that appear within the frame but do not impinge upon it, and which themselves are unaware of the conscious components. This is where the problem of foreground elements (argh, I can’t help the pun) comes to the fore. The cinematic experience promises its viewers an unobstructed view of its stories and characters, but we are denied this by a camera that is often blocked by hanging carcasses, shelves, and impediments of all sorts. Your question is “what does the unconscious want?” and I’m inclined to say—it wants to be visible, it wants not to be pushed aside. This resistance may well be the chief reason that Hard to Be a God is such a chaotic film; the conscious, similarly, refuses to be pushed forward; it seems to want to descend into a sort of sameness where it can barely be differentiated from everything else going on around it.
And that brings me to one last consideration: the camera itself. Characters come up to it, wave to it, use it as if it were a mirror . . . are we, perhaps, the conscious and the rest of the film an ongoing unconscious that we must engage with?
Jeva: I think there is something very Russian about cross-sections, if you will. When I was a kid, my favorite book was a picture book that showed views of a city in cut-away, so you could look into the houses and attics and basements and shops. You could look at the king in his castle, but also the peasants in the field or the cooks in the kitchen or the beggars on the street, and, God-like, you could see what they were all doing. There is something like this happening in Hard to Be a God I think—Janice, I completely agree with how you point out the similarities to the Bruegel painting, and the “collage-like sensibility” of the film. This certainly reminds me of the Russian—or at least Dostoevskian—tradition of literary polyphony, bringing in the voices of an entire range of people. Or maybe more obviously the God-like tradition of Tolstoy’s writing, which is so dense with characters and viewpoints that at one point in Anna Karenina the reader is even presented the thoughts of a hunting dog. We see this artistic tradition also in the music of Igor Stravinsky, where you can almost literally hear the conversations and multiple-voices chattering on the streets at the beginning of “Petrushka.”
But different from a novel or a piece of music, there is a certain strict technical confinement to filmmaking—we can only see what is directly in focus of the camera. Jeffrey already brought up Sokurov’s Russian Ark, which I think is very much a Russian response to this conundrum—the way actors move into and out of and then back into the roving eye of the camera in the museum. (By virtue, it is also very anti-Hollywood, in the way Ruiz’s work is.) Hard to Be a God is doing the same by setting up such a rich, dense, populated, speaking, living, breathing world that we feel we only get a glimpse of. This is done through the impossible camerawork, where the lens is constantly swinging around to show us what’s behind us or around corners. The film is entirely conceived as a three-dimensional, 360 space and this gives it a quality that music and novels and picture books and painting can’t have. It’s really genius.
And this brings me back to the idea of the conscious of the film—and the idea of the conscious of the camera, specifically. Are we as viewers just another voice interacting with this world through an artificial eye? It’s intriguing to think about.
Scott: I like what I’m hearing in these responses insofar as we all seem to be on the same page regarding fracturing, fragmentation, etc—these forces really negate the possibility of an narrative in this film, even though, as Janice points out, many of the initial aspects of Hard to Be a God seem to be leading us in a direction of a narrative.
I think Rosie and Janice raise an important point when they mention that Anton’s godness is negated by the inherent chaos and earthiness of the world that he inhabits. Did anyone else notice, his nose is constantly bleeding! And he keeps on getting shitted on by birds! This film seems to bombard us with all of these random things that keep getting in Anton’s way. But then Jeffrey hits on something that feels important to me when he says that despite everything happening in the frame of this film, it all somehow feels very controlled, that even all of this chaos we see on screen may actually be part of a purposefully concocted strategy on the part of German. And as Jeva notes, we are thrown into this world by the camerawork.
I like what Jeffrey says about the unconscious of this film wanting to be visible, and the very flagrant ways it (or what I take to be the unconscious here) interacts with the camera, in ways that go directly against traditional cinematic rules regarding how actors should behave around the camera. And this is all moving toward a question that I have been wanting to ask for a while now. This film purports to depict a medieval reality. Of course, none of us sitting here today really knows what the medieval era was like. At best we have the work of historians who have sifted the historical record, as well as theorists like Foucault who have purported to find in the medieval world a way of being human that is very much different from what we take as humanness in our own era, which we call “modern” in opposition to the medieval world’s “pre-modern.” The film gives us a version of this medieval world: it shows us a vision of human civilization that is very much constructed from chaos, inefficiency, randomness: Anton is a lord (not just in the godly sense but in the earthly sense too), but for all his immense wealth and power he often can barely even move through all of the vassal humans he owns and supposedly has dominion over.
Let me stop right here and head a slightly different direction, and let us see if what I’m about to say ends up connecting with where that prior paragraph was going: one of the defining differences between our era and the medieval era is the idea of economic efficiency. Prior to the advent of the modern era, economic “production” was essentially flat for well over a thousand years. There was no such thing as economic growth or development as we now understand it. It was only with the arrival of modern ways of organizing the state and the economy that you began to get the enormous economic growth and the perverse fetishization of efficiency that characterizes our era. And looking at Hard to Be a God, I think you begin to see why this is: this world is so absolutely unstable, Anton can hardly take a step without some random occurrence negating whatever it is he is attempting to do at the moment. And he’s a god! How could one even dream of efficiency in this world?
So to take this all back to where I started this, perhaps the unconscious of this film is akin to a psychological unconsciousness of the modern era: that there is really all of this stuff inside of each of us—all kinds of humanity—being suppressed by our own economically derived world, and this film is showing us its own pastiche of the medieval era as a way of giving this unconscious stuff a space to play in and exist.
QUESTION 3: All of what I have been saying he leads me to this third question for you: on the one hand you have this medieval world which is inordinately constructed, in every sense that we can apply that word. Yet also, as we have been saying, Hard to Be a God purports to give us a remarkably unconstructed film, insofar there is very little use of those techniques (editing, blocking, etc) that have generally been used to create the impression of reality in cinema. In this it seems a very Russian film to me in the sense that it seems to be very much about that Bakhtin called “the carnivalesque.” Here is what Wikipedia has to say about the carnivalesque:
In his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929) and Rabelais and His World (1965), Bakhtin likens the carnivalesque in literature to the type of activity that often takes place in the carnivals of popular culture. In the carnival, as we have seen, social hierarchies of everyday life—their solemnities and pieties and etiquettes, as well as all ready-made truths—are profaned and overturned by normally suppressed voices and energies. Thus, fools become wise, kings become beggars; opposites are mingled (fact and fantasy, heaven and hell). It is not to be construed that the liberation from all authority and sacred symbols is an ideology to be believed and held as a creed. Carnival extracts all individuals from noncarnival life, noncarnival states and because there are no hierarchical positions during carnival, ideologies which manifest the mind of individuals cannot exist.
- Familiar and free interaction between people: carnival often brought the unlikely of people together and encouraged the interaction and free expression of themselves in unity.
- Eccentric behaviour: unacceptable behaviour is welcomed and accepted in carnival, and one’s natural behaviour can be revealed without the consequences.
- Carnivalistic misalliances: familiar and free format of carnival allows everything that may normally be separated to reunite—Heaven and Hell, the young and the old, etc.
- Sacrilegious: Bakhtin believed that carnival allowed for Sacrilegious events to occur without the need for punishment. Bakhtin believed that these kinds of categories are creative theatrical expressions of manifested life experiences in the form of sensual ritualistic performances.
So two questions: first of all, to what extent do you see this film as a carnival, to what extent are authorities and hierarchies defeated, or not? And a second related question: let us now bring up the fact that this film has only one female character that is given any meaningful screen time (and she herself is very much objectified and subordinated). And, despite all of the hundreds of men that appear in this film, I believe I counted at most five women who exist in this film at all. What does this tell us about our implicit hierarchies and systems of authority, when a film that is so inherently chaotic and open would nonetheless have this sort of gender imbalance?
Janice: I go back to my previous thoughts on disappointment. The film is incredibly constructed in its unconstructedness. Each shot feels like a distinct choreography, the way in which characters stumble in and out of frame, and then a face addresses the camera directly, then more action/inaction. There is definitely a carnivalesque feel here, and the hierarchies that exist don’t really end up mattering. Even hierarchies that are sought to be destroyed in the film don’t end up mattering in the sense that hierarchies usually do. And yet, the filth equalizes everyone somehow. All of the grime is the same color, the protagonist is constantly bleeding yes, and yet the blood could be shit or dirt because it’s all the same color and no one seems to care. And because of how the film is set up, its initial majestic shots, certain expectations are created. And at least for me, those expectations only continually lead to disappointment. The carnivalesque to me seems more celebratory. There is a sense of liberation because of the lack of hierarchy, a sort of lack of temporary punishment for fools wanting to be gods and vice versa. Yet in this film, the equalization isn’t something to be celebrated. Everyone is trapped in this utter filth, everyone seems to be a fool, and it seems that maybe the hierarchies that are perpetually being broken down didn’t exist practically in the first place.
Jeffrey: But maybe the carnivalesque is apparent in other ways. I’ve previously mentioned the strange role the camera seems to play in Hard to Be a God, but it’s certainly relevant here. We as viewers are almost never foregrounded in a film, but here the various characters interact with us, gawk at us, and shake us out of our complacency as spectators. Certainly this inversion of viewer and view lends itself to an interpretation of carnival, as does the many ways in which the passersby act: they gawk at us without any shame, freely and familiarly; they exhibit every eccentricity possible; this interaction amounts to a carnivalistic misalliance where the divide between audience and performer is torn asunder. But is this sacrilegious? And is this “camera’s eye” and its invitation to strange encounters in any way connected to the other qualities of the film that we might attribute to its medievalesque setting?
Rosie: I think Jeffrey’s comment on the “inversion of viewer and view” is very interesting. To begin with, I found myself feeling very voyeuristic due to the camera’s very close proximity to characters and events; often the shots are uncomfortably close to people’s faces, and the camera’s eye lingers on acts we would consider to be private, i.e. defecation. However, in breaking the fourth wall, German inverts this voyeurism, and I began to feel watched by those same characters, and my sense of safety as a viewer was challenged. I suppose in some way this interacts with the notion of the “carnivalesque,” a carnival being a place where one meets the gaze of “freaks” and abject figures, holding that gaze rather than averting ones eyes, and feeling a sense of complicity as a consumer with whatever degraded performance they are forced into as a consequence of the carnival embodying an economic marketplace. Lastly, if in the film there is any sense of the celebratory, I find it only in a perverse celebration of base, sordid behavior; the sort of sacrilegious events Bakhtin describes. As Janice said, “(e)veryone is trapped in this utter filth,” but as this filth is shared and common, there is some sense of liberation, albeit liberation from any improvement of circumstance.
Jeva: Fools are the wise men of the carnival. This is embraced in so much of the Russian tradition, I think—in folklore, but also in modern literature. “Юродивый” is the Russian word for the “Holy Fool,” and we see him (and sometimes her) show up plenty in the works of Dostoyevsky (The Idiot) but also, I suppose, cross-culturally, like in the character of Don Quixote or Chaplin’s Little Man. The Юродивый is recognizable by his or her performance, paradox, metaphor, riddle, nonsense. Here, they exist in the off-screen murmurs, the twisted statements (“I see, but it feels like I can’t see . . .”). Holy Fools—or whatever their equivalent is in this universe—are the population of Hard to Be a God. The wisdom, the authority, is cleverly disguised and easily dismissed.
As for the question of women, I’m actually reminded of Jonathan Swift—who was clearly completely disgusted by the female body and wrote about it with a kind of grotesque obsession in a lot of his work (maybe most memorably in The Lady’s Dressing Room—”Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”). In my opinion, German is also clearly revolted by women in Hard to Be a God but I hesitate slightly before calling either he or Swift truly misogynist. While I think their depictions of women can be described that way, I also think both don’t discriminate in their disgust. Mankind itself—the human body—is what is filthy and vile and gross. I absolutely don’t think that means we shouldn’t question how German (and Swift too) address women in their work, but I think it’s also important to keep in mind how large the scope of disgust actually is. Like Janice was saying, the uncompromised humanness of all the characters is what is equalizing and, possibly, hierarchy- and patriarchy-destroying. Both kings and beggars and women and men shit—Swift was well aware of this, and used it as a great leveler in his satire. Dramatically, German might be too.
QUESTION 4: I’m sensing general agreement with Janice’s statement that “everyone is trapped in this utter filth,” and I think that we might even endorse the idea that this includes us, the viewer, who is made to feel a part of the scene. And, well, this is a three hour movie. A long time to be trapped in filth without a very strong plot to at least guide you through the mud.
So I think we have to ask this question: did you “like” Hard to Be a God? And a follow-up that I feel is absolutely necessary to properly address this question: what exactly do you take “like” to mean in this context? Was there enjoyment in the traditional cinematic sense? How did the experience made you feel in general?
I want to resist the urge to say too much about this question until you all have weighed in, but I would like to say that this film defeated a lot of my ideas of what I think of as “enjoyable” cinema, which I think is part of the point here, even while, at the same time, I’m kind of bothered by this being part of the point. And I think this tension is very much in keeping with what this film is trying to be and how it works as a film.
So please, as we meander toward the conclusion of this discussion, did you “like” Hard to Be a God?
Janice: I think of course, the notion of “like” or “dislike” is often not included in film criticism, as we train ourselves to “appreciate” and “theorize” rather than be “entertained.” Even in my writing workshops, I discourage students from stating whether they “liked” or “disliked” something because it doesn’t speak to what they got out of the piece, how the piece made them feel, what they learned despite their own personal preferences. And as a fan of films, and especially often of films labeled as “difficult” or “experimental,” I found Hard to Be a God to not only challenge my notions of “like/dislike,” but the way I enjoy cinema at all, even difficult cinema. For example, watching something like Bela Tarr’s seven-hour Satantango, “enjoyment” may not be the word that comes to mind. But there is tremendous amount of relief that I get from the reckoning and reconciliation with my own patience, my own ethics, and my own way of seeing the world that Tarr’s long takes invoke in me. Or the incredible tension and uncomfort that comes from watching something like the final scene of Tsai Ming-Liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn, I’m literally holding my breath because I don’t want to move or let any breath exit my mouth in the overbearing silence and stillness of the theatre, don’t want to disturb the un-silent silence, yet this tension is incredibly productive for me. So for me, these films, though not necessarily “enjoyable” in the traditional sense, provide necessary frames for me to reconcile my own sense of seeing or existing within these elongated moments, they become uncomfortable frames, contemplative frames, ethical frames, confessional boxes, moments of tension or navigation or negotiation or complication. And it’s important for this to all exist in cinema, because cinema can allow for that kind of space in the time of the film. Yet in Hard to Be a God, I mostly found myself disappointed. I asked myself, is this what this is about? Disappointment? Is it about being hard to be a god? Or being hard to be alive at all? Ought I to appreciate my reality more and relish the lack of filth that permeates the film? Is this disgust and disappointment productive? Might I be forced to come to any sort of reckoning? But the film just peeters off for me. I’ve endured the duration of the film, and at the end, the difference I feel in the before and afterglow of the film doesn’t seem to be productive or significant. I just feel kind of dirty. I want to take a shower. I can hardly recall what’s actually happened. I don’t feel that anything has changed. Instead it’s like that feeling when someone you meet has just sneezed into their hand and then you are forced to shake that same hand. You shake their hand willingly, in fact, can feel the still lingering snot from their abrupt and loud sneeze. You continue to shake their hand. For minutes, hours. When the handshake is over, your only urge is to run to the bathroom. Did I like this film? It’s honestly hard to tell, but my body leans towards the negative. It wasn’t enjoyable. But it sure did give me a lot to think about.
Jeva: First of all, I love this question. It is really, really challenging for me to answer. I was so pumped to see Hard to Be a God—I missed its original New York run and was beside myself with excitement when Anthology Film Archives brought it back for an encore series. I was so knocked off balance by what the film actually was—I’d known very little about it before going in—that I was frankly extremely disappointed when I was walking out of the theater. I had a hard time separating if I was let down because it wasn’t what I’d expected, or if it was because I truly hadn’t liked the film.
Participating in this roundtable made me revisit sections of the film and honestly, I’m still not really sure. The difference to me between German and Tarr or Tsai—two of my absolute favorite directors—is that while all three require acts of a kind of intellectual endurance, German isn’t pretty. Tarr and Tsai make beautiful, stunning films that I want to screenshot and hang on my wall in frames. German is an acrobat with the camera, but nothing about his movie would I call “beautiful.” I was actually physically uncomfortable watching it, like Janice. Walking out of the theater was a relief, and not just because I’d been sitting for three hours. Something about this movie literally affected my body.
But maybe I’m being too harsh. Clearly something in me likes the movie, that’s why I’m here. I like talking about it. Like Janice, it’s stuck with me and given me a lot to think about. But at the same time, Hard to Be a God is something more to me than just being a movie I understand is doing something “smart” but that I didn’t enjoy (that’s what something like 8 ½ for me). I actually did enjoy something about Hard to Be a God beyond appreciating it from an intellectual standpoint. I don’t know what though. It’s like black licorice—I think it’s disgusting, and something about that disgustingness makes me keep buying it. Whatever it is, Hard to Be a God got under my skin just as I suspect it intended to.
Jeffrey: Jeva, I wish I could say this was the first time I heard somebody discuss a film in terms suggestive of masochism. But even so, you’re right, it’s a film that forces us outside of our comfort zones. It engages us, and I might go so far as to say that it arouses in us a sensation or experience similar to what a traveler feels. Plenty of research shows that a traveler coming to a new country processes sensory input (sights, smells, sounds . . .) in much the same way that an infant or toddler does, with an extraordinary openness, curiosity, and increased mental recall. The “rules” (if I may call them that) of watching Hard to Be a God were so remarkably different from those of watching any other film, even some of the most avant-garde films mentioned elsewhere in this roundtable that I suspect we were reduced to a similar state of primordial curiosity.
As such, while Hard to Be a God does engender revulsion and disgust, I think the main feeling I took away from it was less joy than fascination. I wanted to know how the film worked, what was driving it (since plot wasn’t its main driver), and how it would resolve if it did resolve at all. I will say that I haven’t heard anyone say that they got up and left in the middle of the film (indeed, I’m surprised that isn’t the story most people tell—shouldn’t it be the sort of film people walk out of?) and so I wonder if it’s this newly awakened openness to a wholly different language of film that makes Hard to Be a God so inherently fascinating despite its apparent ugliness and filth. It encourages us to be children again, to learn what to do and not do (seriously, kiddos, don’t eat dirt!), and to open new filmic pathways that other filmmakers will inevitably water down and turn into cinematic clichés.
To come back to this larger, simpler question of “liking” it . . . I think that, on the simplest level, I didn’t “like” it. I could happily watch that miniseries The Best of Youth or the remake of The Italian Job endlessly, and derive simple pleasure from it. Hard to Be a God, however, touches on something more primordial and fundamental in myself. It awakens a sense of curiosity and wonder I have only encountered in a few other works of art, by bringing into question the various rules and structures by which I have been navigating art. It is a film I would not recommend to my mother, but which I would heartily recommend to those who wonder if film as art has reached a point of exhaustion. Hard to Be a God brings about the miracle of renewing its viewers’ faith in art as transformative practice.
Rosie: Like Janice, I like to be challenged sometimes by what I consume, and I was certainly challenged here. Although I went in with certain presumptions based on what little information I had (it was Russian, three hours long, black and white, comparable to Tarkovsky (though I don’t see that myself)—all signifiers that suggest certain things), my experience of the film transcended those expectations. It certainly removed me from my comfort zone, intellectually and physically speaking. While I like to be challenged, I don’t enjoy the feeling of confoundedness or stupidity, which is where I found myself at times during the film. I suppose I kept expecting to suddenly “get” it, and it was only once I resigned myself to the incoherence of HTBAG that I began to enjoy it as a piece of visual art rather than a formally structured film. It is as if you have to give in to the farce of what you’re seeing and renounce hopes for logic and conclusion in order to gain any sort of pleasure. That said, the revulsion arising from the visceral, abject vileness that you cannot turn away from definitely rubs up against that potential for enjoyment. I would not blame someone for their unwillingness to endure past half way—at the screening I attended, around 30 percent of the audience left before the film ended. I can’t claim to have found any sense of revelation or enlightenment as a consequence of my experience of the film, but then, that’s certainly not my predominant motivation for watching most films. I’m glad I’ve seen it, and I do recommend it to certain people, but it’s incredibly (intentionally, I think) alienating; it’s a film that could make you blame yourself for not understanding when there is little to understand.
Scott: I think it’s interesting that some of us are talking in terms of revulsion and some of us are talking in terms of fascination—two sides of the same coin, in my opinion. I definitely agree that there is a lot to disgust in this film, and it does leave one with a certain soiled feeling (which I think is (if nothing else) brave, as not many films aspire to leave a viewer feeling such), but I also just felt very fascinated by a lot of the things happening on screen. To be sure, they were often brutal, grotesque, and misogynistic things (in those few moments where we even see women on-screen)—things that I would not want in my actual life—and perhaps that’s part of the fascination. (And to be clear, I’m not calling German misogynistic but rather the world that he purports to depict in this film. I wouldn’t ascribe anything so coherent as a point of view on that, or any other, subject to this film, except perhaps the one Janice has reiterated, that it’s rather disappointing to be a god.) I’m taken back to cinema’s roots, Tom Gunning’s whole “Cinema of Attraction,” where people would flood in to watch films of things like guns being shot and trains colliding with the camera. That’s what this film feel like to be (but of course those were a few minutes long and this one is three hours). And I like what Jeffrey says about feeling like a traveler that has just come to a new country: as much as the medieval world depicted in this world is a terrible, disgusting sight, I’ve never gotten such an up-close, lifelike look at what the medieval world might have been, and for that reason I kept finding this film compelling, even if I will readily admit that at times my interest flagged and I stepped away to check my email or pet the cat. And as Janice and Jeva have pointed out, there are filmmakers who can take extraordinarily long takes, or scenes with very simple actions, and make them inherently compelling in a way that Hard to Be a God never really does (whether from inability or disinterest I can’t say).
So I think in the end I have to say that this was a film that made me question why I liked what I saw, and why at times I began to feel bored and disinterested. To be sure, the screen is always full of activity, much of it strange, revolting, and fascinating, so it’s curious to think that my attention can flag despite the continual influx of sensory stimulation. I think that is an interesting conundrum to consider, particularly when you think about the fact that our world is one of constant bombardment with sensory input, much of it custom-designed to titillate, seduce, and otherwise appeal to your hungers.
Jeva Lange is a staff writer at The Week. She is also the managing editor of Bennington Review and an alumnus of Bennington College. Her work has been published in The Awl, The Atlantic Wire, VICE, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. A Seattle native, Jeva now lives in Queens, New York. Jeffrey Zuckerman is Digital Editor at Music & Literature Magazine and is currently translating Antoine Volodine’s Radiant Terminus and Ananda Devi’s Eve Out of Her Ruins. He’s recovering from Aleksei German by watching Arnaud Desplechin’s movies on loop. Janice Lee is the author of KEROTAKIS (Dog Horn Press, 2010), Daughter (Jaded Ibis, 2011), Damnation (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013), Reconsolidation (Penny-Ante Editions, 2015), and most recently, The Sky Isn’t Blue (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016). She is Editor of the #RECURRENT Series, Assistant Editor at Fanzine, Executive Editor of Entropy, and CEO/Founder of POTG Design. She currently lives in Los Angeles and teaches at CalArts. Rosie Clarke is a freelance writer and critic. She is Events Programmer at The Center for Fiction in New York. Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
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