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For many readers, that probably doesn't sound like a recommendation. But if great art can—and should—be made about any subject, then there must be great art about barbarism. Hard to Be a God falls into this (presumably very limited) category, responding to the subject matter with formal innovation and an unwavering sense of beauty. Granted, German's sense of the beautiful is constantly clashing against images of utter hideousness. God is filled with ravishing images of fog, muddy fields, and landscapes of human bodies, but also instances of torture, dismemberment, and scatology. It's incredible that the latter set of images never overwhelms the former. The movie exists in a sort of stalemate between the sublime and the profane, suggesting that glimmers of humanity's best can be found even at its worst—and vice versa.
Adapted from a 1964 novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the story is actually fairly simple. A group of scientists travel to an alien planet that's very much like our own, but whose human population is several centuries behind us in terms of cultural evolution. The scientists hope to witness something like the Renaissance in action, but instead they encounter a violent backlash against intellectual development, as the populace launches a crusade against thinkers and creative-minded people. God opens 20 years after the scientists arrive, having established themselves as part of the anthropomorphic race but without intervening in events lest they alter the course of another planet's history. (One scientist has been accepted as a pagan god, which is where the title comes from.) The pogroms are still going strong: gallows are everywhere and civilization is in evident decay. People behave in open defiance of intellectuality, often replacing language with a system of spitting, coughing, farting, and scatological gestures. At times the film suggests an avant-garde version of Mike Judge's Idiocracy.
God ends after yet another massacre, signaling that the cultural decay, which began long before the story did, will continue long after it ends. You might feel as if the movie, for all its awesome camera movements, hasn't gone anywhere. I think this is how German intended for us to feel. Throughout the three-hour running time, the filmmaker does everything he can to keep us from getting too wrapped up in the story. Major events transpire offscreen, major characters go unidentified, and it's hard to tell how time elapses between scenes. The movie seems to be going in a circle, revisiting similar images and locations to lock the viewer into a stagnant present. German even mocks his own artistry, which might have had the effect of lifting viewers out of the devastating content. Often the characters look awkwardly at the camera, as if baffled by German's desire to film them. One simpleminded goon even addresses the camera in an opening scene, lifting a shit-encrusted seat off a public toilet and pointing it at us. "A painting," he says sneeringly.
This joke points to the fundamental paradox of Hard to Be a God: How do you make a work of art that actually responds to the absence of civilized culture and doesn't simply present it? This is the same paradox underlying Scott Walker's recent albums, which are no less obsessed by historical atrocities and the enduring power of art. (Incidentally, Bosch's paintings, which Walker invokes in the title of his 2012 LP Bish Bosch, are a major influence on God.) For German as well as Walker, responding to atrocities means creating a towering work that overshadows all other art in the vicinity—leaving a great dark spot upon the cultural landscape comparable to the ones atrocities leave upon history. Walker referred to certain nonmelodic elements of The Drift (2006) as blocks of sound. Similarly one might describe the narrative stagnation of God in terms of blocks of time, passages wherein viewers must confront the full weight of barbarism without recourse to the niceties of storytelling.
Critic Glenn Kenny, among others, has cited another, more mainstream point of reference for German's achievement: George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road. That comparison isn't as perverse as it might sound. Miller's latest film is, like God, an immersive, apocalyptic spectacle that was more than a decade in the making and mixes elements of science fiction and medievalism. ("Who killed the world?"—a memorable refrain from Fury Road—wouldn't be out of place in God.) Both films, moreover, are likely the most sonically impressive to open in Chicago this year. Fury Road contains the most pointed use of Dolby Atmos I've yet heard—the booming, chair-rattling bass creates a sense of destabilization comparable to what goes on in Mad Max's head. The soundtrack of God, on the other hand, is made up of countless specific sounds that, taken together, form a sort of musique concrete—the sonic equivalent of German's Brueghel-like landscapes. (The director reportedly spent six years working on the mix.) Miller has explained that he intended the intricate, colorful look of Fury Road as a rebuke to the gloomy aesthetic of so many other postapocalyptic fantasies, arguing that the last people on earth would probably cherish whatever beauty they had left. The sound design of Hard to Be a God serves a similar purpose, suggesting that beauty persists even if there aren't any people around to recognize it.