When I was a fledgling cinephile at the tender age of 14, I never imagined that one of my favorite movies in a given year would be one that contained the most on-screen bodily fluids at once. Or that it would be over three hours long. Or that it would eschew most narrative conventions. Or that it would be in black and white.
Yet, the late Aleksey German's Hard to be a God is all of those things. It is a Russian-language film that allegedly is about a scientist who travels to a human-inhabited planet whose civilization has failed to progress beyond medieval culture and technology. The scientist, named Don Rumata, is studying these people in an effort to steer them towards enlightenment and progression. The catch is that, in order to avoid betraying his ethical values, he cannot interfere with or harm any of the people. Against his better judgment, however, he cannot look past the squalor and decrepitude of their existence, and tries to save the people from themselves.
Why the bodily fluids, then? When you put a lot of brutish, uneducated and impoverished people into extremely harsh weather and living conditions, chances are that they won't be their best selves. As such, German includes a parade of images in which characters will spit, shit or piss directly onto the ground, or each other, if it's more convenient. The mostly male cast does what they want with the few female characters, abusing them both physically and sexually seemingly at random, with the women more or less resigned to their fates. Life is cheap in this environment, and it is not unusual to see someone get seriously injured or even killed for no good reason.
You don't enjoy cinema like this, per se. German clearly is not interested in entertaining you, although he does accomplish this on occasion, intentional or not. He wants to pull us face first into a realization of the horrific history humans have crafted for themselves. The film may be set on another planet, but the narrative doesn't reveal that (I know only from reading plot synopses from film festivals), lending this film an air of authenticity, as if it were made in the time in which it was set, to paraphrase Roger Ebert. The camera follows the action either in extreme closeup or, at most, a medium shot. German utilizes long takes throughout, and the stark black and white tones remind one of Bela Tarr's cinema of despair and oblivion.
German apparently wanted to make this film his entire life, and he passed away in the process of producing it. It is unsettling to see formal ambition packaged in such a frightful way. What horrors must this man have gone through psychologically to have wanted to visualize such things. Hard to Be a God isn't a film, really. It's an exorcism.