In November of 1989, The Berlin Wall — the second-most potent symbol of the Cold War after Ivan Drago — became a speed bump as the physical, social, and political barriers separating West and East Germany collapsed. As Germans began streaming back and forth across the once imposing border, the entirety of the Soviet-era Iron Curtain began to crumble. Before anyone knew what was happening, the world had changed. In the ensuing months, East and West Germany were reunited, the Berlin Wall was demolished, and the Soviet Union ceased to be while the satellites that had once composed it became new countries. It conjured a heady mix of joy, terror, confusion, elation, and ambivalence. In 1989, before the dust had settled, before anyone even really knew what the future held in store, a group of filmmakers from France teamed up with a group of filmmakers from West Germany and the Soviet Union — two countries that wouldn’t even exist by the time their work was finished — to make an ambitious, batty, corny sci-fi fantasy film called Es ist nicht leicht ein Gott zu sein, (Hard to be a God), that ended up being a telling reflection of the upheaval and anxiety that permeated the final days of the 1980s.
Hard to Be a God is set on one of those planets that looks like medieval Earth with some Dungeons & Dragons stuff thrown in (the movie was filmed in The Ukraine and parts of Soviet Asia). Through the blighted landscape rides a man, Rumata (Polish actor Edward Zentara), who looks like he’s on his way to a costume party dressed as some zany version of Christophe Lambert in Highlander. Actually, he’s on his way to an even more lavish affair — the court of a loony king (Pierre Clementi, flailing about wildly and going way over the top, as people playing crazy sci-fi rulers usually do) who sort of half-assedly rules over a grubby, maze-like city of cliff dwellings and mud huts. The real power in the city, as is frequently the case, lies with the king’s advisor and chief of the secret police, the cadaverous Reba (Aleksandr Filippenko, and if this movie had ever been remade in the United States, it would have been criminal not to put Michael Ironside in this role). Rumata has little interest in local political intrigue, however, and is merely in town to find a merchant who owes him some money.
Or so Rumata says. Reba grows suspicious of Rumata when local records show that a nobleman by the same name was reported dead some months back. Reba self-effacingly dismisses it to Rumata as a record keeping error, but suspicion has been ignited. Rumata meets with the merchant, Mita (crazy ol’ Werner Herzog), and we learn that Reba’s suspicions are well-founded. Rumata and Mita are actually Anton and Richard, two observers from an orbiting spaceship conducting an anthropological study of the planet’s primitive society and questionable hairstyles. Mita has gone native and decided that he wants to foster a revolution. No sooner has he explained this to Rumata/Anton than the revolution is on. Too bad Mita chose to enlist the aid of Reba, who uses the uprising as an opportunity to slaughter civilians and clean out most of his political adversaries, leaving himself more or less in charge, given that the king’s primary function in the government seems to be to swoon and suffer from the vapors.
Anton manages to con his way out of being associated with Mita’s failed rebellion, but the powers that be on the orbiting ship insist that he take Mita’s place until a suitable replacement can be prepped and dispatched. Anton does the best he can to fit in, but his admiration for the would-be inventors, artists, and scientists laboring under the yoke of a brutal regime that loves nothing so much as slaughtering potentially intelligent people (“God gave men a tongue so they could lick boots, not so they could speak their mind” muses Reba) means that before too long, he is feeling pangs of regret at being merely an observer. When Reba’s campaign of oppression escalates into wholesale slaughter, the man from space can no longer contain himself to the sidelines.
In many ways, Hard to be a God is a goofy movie — not so least of these ways being the terrible wigs and the inability of Germans and Soviets to resist accompanying space scenes with blasts of bombastic prog rock. But the movie is trying so hard, and is so full of ideas and challenging questions that whatever stylistic quirks it may possess are easily dismissed. This is science fiction as a way to address modern quandaries and puzzle out potential pitfalls and solutions. It is very much like an episode of Star Trek (the original series or Next Generation — take your pick), with all the ham-handedness that implies but also with with more grime, more blood, and more full frontal male nudity (the best we ever got from Picard was chest-revealing satin pajamas). The ambitiousness of the story is largely attributable to the source material, a novel called Trudno byt Bogom by the Soviet sci-fi writing team of Arkadiy and Boris Strugatskiy, best known for writing the novel that became Andrey Tarkovskiy’s Stalker. Arkadiy and Boris Strugatskiy excelled at writing complex science fiction that was adapted into equally complex films. But where Stalker was deliberate and slow in its pacing, Hard to be a God has much more of a pulp sensibility. It’s the Strugatskiys filtered through Metal Hurlant (the French sci-fi magazine that became Heavy Metal). It doesn’t eschew philosophical issues, but at the same time, it also has affection for the adventure and action that was popular in sci-fi and fantasy at the time.
The most striking aspect of the plot is its stance on totalitarianism and anti-intellectualism. In the world of Hard to be a God‘s medieval potentates, there is no greater danger to their authority than a literate population. The most active heroes in Hard to Be a God are a wandering scientist named Budach (Andrei Boltnev), who has pioneered advances in medicine and astronomy, and a simple weaponsmith named Hauk (Mikhail Gluzsky), who (with Mita’s assistance) has invented the world’s first printing press. Hauk is nota rebel. He’s not a firebrand. He’s not looking to overthrow the government. He is just an inventor who has made something he thinks could help advance society. Reba recognizes the press as being far more dangerous than any of the weapons that hang in Hauk’s workshop. His STASI-like organization of goons and spies spends less time worrying about fighters with swords, and more time worrying about farmers teaching themselves to read and write. Revolutions don’t happen because a bunch of revolutionaries get together in a rented room and make speeches at each other, after all. They happen because normal, everyday people can no longer suppress the feeling that something is wrong, that the way things are is not the way things should be.
More vocal in his dissent is pan flute playing poet Suren (Hughes Quester, which itself sounds like a science fiction name), who likes to rile up crowds with his anti-government performance art. It’s a good thing he moonlights as a revolutionary, because his pan flute playing is terrible. Although it’s not as overt as the movie’s stance on anti-intellectualism, Hard to be a God encourages the viewer to think about the issue of cause and effect. Suren, for example, riles up crowds who are then summarily slaughtered by guards. He tends to stir shit up then make an escape, leaving others to pay the price in blood and suffering. Is he a herald? A motivator? An exploiter? Does Suren bear responsibility for these deaths? Similarly, Anton is an observer, but the arrival of his people’s ship — which caused a brilliant flash in the night sky — is one of the occurrences that ushered in the era of religious fanaticism and paranoia. What responsibility do the “aliens” bear for inadvertently causing the very situation they claim not to be interfering in?
If the locals are Eastern Europeans on the brink of revolution, are the humans hovering in orbit the United States, partially responsible for what’s happening while not exactly wanting to take an active part in the process? Could they even make a difference if they tried? The observers in space who see events through Anton’s eyes also find themselves conflicted. As this unfolds, another of the movie’s philosophical musings makes itself known, regarding the ubiquity of images of suffering, and how all-encompassing media focusing on images of violence can cause us to lose our ability to sympathize with others even as it strives to impart sympathy. What is the right thing to do? Is there a right thing to do? Do Anton and the observers in space has a moral obligation to help suffering people? Can they help? Or will their contribution make no difference, perhaps make even things worse? Look at how often well-meaning attempts at aid devolve rapidly into corruption, impotence, and the onset of neo-colonialist “white savior” attitudes. Hard to be a God doles out questions, but not always answers. After all, part of the problem with hard questions is that they are hard questions. It’s folly to think that an answer is necessarily on hand to be served up. When the revolution finally comes to a boil, the aftermath leaves us with the same ambivalence as was gripping Europe in 1989.
And then the power ballad starts up. These people did let David Hasselhoff sing atop the Berlin Wall, after all.