Sunday, February 8, 2015

Aleksei German's final film "Hard to Be A God" at Northwest Film Forum: Feb 20 - 23 | Aleksei German Retrospective at Anthology Film Archives New York: Jan 31 - Feb 10

One of the great films of the year, if not the decade, finally sees distribution and a miss-it-and-lose four day run at Northwest Film Forum later this month. After stunning audiences at it's premier in film festivals around the globe last year, the posthumously completed "Hard to Be a God" by Aleksei German returns heralded by a retrospective at New York's Anthology Film Archives. These rare screenings of his handful of films making for, "A Small Batch from Life’s Work". Based on the Strugatsky Brothers novel of the same name, German (who died during the film's post-production in 2013) retains so little of the original's science fiction frame that his film becomes the closest thing to a Medieval Cinema Verité documentary; mud, incessant rain, fog, tides of sewage and disease, innards, decaying structures, the ruined facades of buildings and people. A world dominated by the downward tug of gravity and matter, pulling everything into the grave. Like finding oneself inside the nightmare torrent of a Pieter Bruegel painting made real. We're witness, often in first person, to human development the protagonist's civilization has already long, long overcome, "Hard to Be a God: A Man from the Future Who Walks Through a Cultural Past".

Set during civil and religious conflict enabling petty power grabs on the part of Barons and regional lords, the film follows the armor-clad Don Rumata, who the planet's populace believes to be the baronial offspring of a Pagan God, as he makes his way through the sweaty, embittered, superstitious, farting, primitive, hysterical, stupefied, madding crowd. The extreme tumult of the setting and the viewer's vantage in the midst of the grotesque, absurd, carnivalesque misery drown out any clear grasp of Rumata’s obscurely defined mission, or what's left of it. We're witness to a Conrad-like scenario in which the 'civilized' foreigner has been eroded away by the conditions of his acclimation to the alien place and time. What remains of his identity and lost ideals roll off his tongue as philosophical musings on power, exploitation and the downward nature of influence. The ingrained awareness that nothing can save these people from themselves... but time. IndieWire's coverage of the film's premier goes some way to describe it's monumental achievement, "Why A Visionary Work Over a Decade In the Making has Dominated the Rotterdam Film Festival".

Rumata as Earth's representative of a different path taken, must endure this world divorced from it's own Renaissance, yet seemingly on the cusp of civilization winning out over barbarism. Perhaps his own presence, and the influence of his perceived Godhood is one of the factors in the perpetuation of the savagery of the Middle Ages. The film becomes a thought experiment asking us to consider what society might be today had the Renaissance never taken hold, and if as emissaries of a cultured world, we have a place, much less a responsibility in it. Or, if as it seems through Rumata's pulling up of roots and disembarking from his civil war-torn kingdom at the film's end, the degeneracy, sludge and filth of Arkanarian Medieval existence might just continue uninterrupted for all eternity. These final scenes, the first breath of space amidst it's claustrophobic deluge offer perspective, insight and in the end, resignation. A singular cognizant rumination on this understanding, a breath of comprehension within it's flailing melee and strife. It's with this statement on the Universe delivering what will come, unnoticing and irrespective of the human experience, that "The Dark Master of Russian Film", leaves the world.