In the far future, humanity has discovered another planet that is also inhabited by humans. The scientist Anton is sent there in the disguise of a nobleman to observe and study the savage, medieval society. As he witnesses the cruelty and suffering brought upon the citizens by their feeble-minded king and his tyrannical advisor Reba, he takes the momentous decision to intervene.
Hard To Be A God is an adaptation of the novel with the same name by the Russian Science Fiction writers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. The movie was a German-Soviet co-production, and was written and directed by Werner Fleischmann. In his home country of Germany, Fleischmann was mostly known for absurdist dramas, and Hard To Be A God (original title: Es ist nicht leicht, ein Gott zu sein) was his first venture into the Sci-Fi genre. His adaptation of the book was the first, in 2013 another version was made by Russian director Aleksey German. This new version was visually as astounding as it was repulsive, and a lot more difficult to process than Fleischmann’s interpretation.
The only European country at the time known for high quality Sci-Fi productions was the Soviet Union. The movie looks like it was inspired by this more sober branch of Sci-Fi cinema compared to the special-effects laden US productions of its day. While not relying on spectacle, Hard To Be A God certainly has very good production values. It features a couple of large and creative sets that show us a world similar to Medieval Europe. Yet Fleischmann manages to make everything look just a little bit off to evoke the feeling we’re really on a different planet.
The movie follows the proceedings of the book fairly closely, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing if you’re adapting a high-quality template. The story begins with a slow pace as we’re introduced to the customs and problems of the world Anton (who is played dashingly by Edward Zentara) has been sent to. During his journey he experiences the human condition in its full spectrum, mostly the bad side. He also is confronted with his own emerging aggressive instincts that humanity thought it had gotten rid of a long time ago. The question if human society inevitably evolves towards a more benevolent and peaceful state, is one of the central aspect of the film, but there’s plenty of other food for thought in the at times slightly contrived dialogues.
The cinematography is certainly a highlight of the movie. It features stunning shots of a barren, but beautiful rocky desert landscape that evoke a truly otherworldly flair. The costumes and hair styles of the characters in the movie also are quite original and somewhat eccentric. Together with the occasionally lavish sets one may be reminded of David Lynch’s Dune in some of these scenes. Hard To Be A God also features plenty of tense and violent moments. Especially the visualization of the cruelty of the tyrannical regime is rather drastic with displays of torture scenes and piled-up bodies. The dialogues and acting are presented in a fairly sober fashion, there’s no comic relief or entertaining distractions. The overall tone of the movie is fairly dark, as Anton passes through run-down villages that are inhabited by people who for the most part have lost hope for a better life.
Hard To Be A God presents a classic story in captivating and hypnotic images. It is certainly one of the most interesting European Sci-Fi movies made outside of Russia.