Describing Hard to be a God as an uncomfortable viewing experience is an understatement. Russian director Aleksei German subjects his audience to nearly three hours of unbroken human decadence. I don't even mean the (occasionally) fun abundance luxury and sex, but a far more earthy, basic form of behaviour. There is a particular emphasis on every variety of bodily excrement you can imagine, which are all put to “creative” use.
An opening narration tells us, that we are on the planet Arkanar - identical to Earth, but backward in its development. The Renaissance never occurred on this planet, so humanity is stuck in an eternally rainy or foggy Middle Ages. The narrative (if you want to call it that) is disjointed and confusing. We see this strange world through the eyes of Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), a scientist from Earth who is desperately trying to make sense of his surroundings while also enjoying his role as a sort of futuristic god.
Hard to be a God is vile, disgusting and far too long, but you can't help but admire the director's resolute commitment. German has been attempting to bring the 1964 sci-fi novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky to the big screen for nearly fifty years and he makes no compromise whatsoever in his adaptation. The black and white images are often striking and his extraordinary camerawork is quite playful. The view is often obscured by random objects appearing in front of the lens and the actors regularly break the fourth wall in order to give a knowing look to the camera (sometimes these shots turn out to be POV, sometimes they don't).
This is what humanity without culture would look like. The debauchery and the barbarism are sandwiched between two pieces of music played by Rumata on a strange instrument at the beginning and the end of the film. In the absence of culture, we would merely be a collection of noises and bodily fluids. German gets this simple point across very effectively, but doesn't really need three hours to do so. It may be self-indulgent nonsense, but Hard to Be a God is a weirdly intriguing, challenging experience. I will not forget this film anytime soon.