What if Life on Another Planet Looks Like the Putrid Middle Ages?

Russian director Aleksei German’s final film breaks all the rules of science fiction in the best way possible.

Hard to Be a God illustration
Lenfilm Studio/Inverse
Found in Translation

Drenched in filth, the visibly fetid array of characters that inhabit the planet Arkanar appear to exist in a perpetual state of delirium. Their history mimics that of Europe, with one exception: The Renaissance never occurred here, and the population remains stuck in the barbaric, and unspeakably unsanitary Middle Ages. Dark times never saw the light.

Thrown into this putrid environment, it’s only what we can glean from the sporadic voice-over and key lines of dialogue in Hard to Be a God, Russian director Aleksei German’s final film, that serve as insufficient tools to grasp where we are and why. A group of earthlings, all of them scientists, traveled from Earth to Arkanar but never revealed their origin to the locals. In this society ruled by violent anti-intellectualism, “bookworms” or “wisemen” (anyone who knows how to read or write) are persecuted and executed. Their task is merely to observe and they are forbidden from interfering with their worldview or prompting enlightenment.

Among those voyagers, Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) has attained a privileged position. Those around him believe he is the human embodiment of a divine power and thus obey his will. Rumata, a charismatic bearded man, uses his untouchable status to try to prevent the killing of other men of science from Earth. Part of the self-constructed lore he tells his servants is that his holiness prevents him from killing, so instead he claims to have only cut off the ears of his enemies. Still, there are those who question the validity of his sanctity.

Rumata seems unfazed by the pestilence and death that plague this realm.

Lenfilm Studio

German, who died before the completion of this project (his widow and son stepped in to finish it after production originally happened between 2000 and 2006), adapted this gruesome take on science fiction from Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1964 novel of the same title. His black-and-white masterpiece — screened for the first time in 2013 — is a feat of immersion, in great part due to its stunningly convincing production design and cinematography guiding the viewer from one repulsive space to the next with seamless fluidity. The documentary-like camera wanders through steam, flying feathers, hanging animal corpses, and all manner of obstacles for nearly three hours.

Spitting and blowing their noses with abandon, barons, monks, slaves, and soldiers frolic around in cavernous, muddy, and humid dungeons covered in vomit and all other imaginable human and animal secretions. Despite his higher spot in the hierarchy, Rumata, in full armor, walks around unfazed by the pestilence and death that plague this realm after living there for many years. Such is the griminess depicted; one can almost smell the foul odors while watching. It’s as if the physical putrefaction was in direct correlation to the obscene lack of intellectual curiosity. They’re drowning in the excrement of ignorance.

Hard to be a God isn’t as concerned with the future, as it is with humanity’s present and recent past.

Lenfilm Studio

Hard to Be a God shocks the system into considering how the Western world functioned centuries ago, and how it could have continued that way for much longer if obscurantism had triumphed over those pushing science and culture forward. By harshly contemplating the possibility that our counterparts somewhere out there in the universe are not enlightened, technologically advanced beings but that they suffer from the same vices as us, German isn’t as concerned with the future as he is with humanity’s present and recent past.

While both the novel and German’s filmic reimagining are informed by the periods of extreme fascism that Russia has endured, its warning stays relevant even if detached from that historical context. Those horrors are not so distant from our modern era where politicians continue to engage in book banning, peddle misinformation, advocate for religion to interfere in secular affairs, and devalue the work of scientists, particularly in relation to the impending climate crisis. Even with the ubiquitous accessibility of the internet, we are not entirely immune to devolving into that terrifyingly primitive state.

Characters occasionally stare into the lens or speak directly to us.

Lenfilm Studio

Dehumanized, the bodies of most individuals in Arkanar look as if rotting while still alive, their mutilated flesh marinating in their own sweat. And yet, there’s an air of disturbing levity to their behavior. No one is bothered by the sight of severed heads or disemboweled bodies. Smiles that reflect an understandably unstable mental state communicate the collective acceptance of the little value life has in this reality.

They all also seem to be aware of the camera, at one point someone refers to it as an “angel,” since it accompanies Rumata wherever he goes. Characters occasionally stare into the lens or speak directly to us, completely foregoing the notion of a fly in the wall and making us participants in the chaos. Eventually, Rumata must break his vow to not intervene in order to save himself, realizing that it is in fact a difficult job to be a deity witnessing those beneath him murder each other with no intention of moving past primal instincts.

For its visceral, disorienting, and frankly at times unbearably grotesque effect to take hold, Hard to Be a God demands the viewer suppress the desire for narrative clarity and surrender to its choreographed madness. It’s a pungent cinematic experience that truly merits the catchphrase, “unlike anything you have ever seen before.”

Related Tags