The Tree of Knowledge

Aleksei German had one of the harder lives of any working filmmaker of the last half century. His movies - six in all, though he disowned his debut The Seventh Companion - never went according to plan. His early work was considered anti-patriotic by the Russian Government, one of the more activist when it comes to arts funding, and had their releases delayed or they were banned outright. In 1971 and 1984 he mounted films (Trial of the Road and My Friend Ivan Lapshin) based on books written by his father, the successful communist writer Yuri German, though neither enjoyed much of a life in theatres. Trial of the Road was released during Perestroika, some 15 years after it had finished shooting and the Union of Soviet Filmmakers’ Conflict Committee shelved My Friend Ivan Lapshin for three years. He paid direct tribute to his father the man in the form of the lead character of his 1976 film Twenty Days Without War. Though ostensibly based on the writing of Konstantin Simonov, it tells the story of a wartime writer who cuts a figure very similar to that of Yuri German. It concerns a journalist who returns from the front to help organize a film based on his experience writing about it and finds everyone has their own idea about what the moral center of a war’s narrative should be. Twenty Days Without War was also kept away from audiences. Rumour has it that the end of its banishment in 1981 only came about when the well-liked Simonov directly intervened on the film’s behalf. It is, in short, a miracle that Audiences are going to get the opportunity to sit down and watch his films when they play a retrospective at Anthology Film Archives this month to coincide with the release of his final film, on which more in a moment.

Aleksei German’s fortunes could not have been more different than those enjoyed by his father. According to Alexander Werth in his book Russia: Hopes and Fears, writing two years after Yuri German’s death: “His novels, many of them wartime novels with good plots and full of adventure, were unusual in Russia and, therefore, enormously popular…he was a man of great moral courage…” Aleksei never had Yuri’s populist appeal in Russia, despite working for over 50 years and culling material from his father’s much loved work, but they shared that moral courage. German was vehemently anti-Soviet from his first film until his dying breath. His 1998 masterpiece of a film maudit Khrustyalov, My Car! about Stalin’s final week on earth as experienced by a paranoid General, was based largely on German’s experiences having been observed not-so-secretly by the state after a life delivering one furious anti-government nightmare after another. German’s films present the alternative history of life in the Soviet Union and modern Russia. The one that journalists are still murdered for trying to talk about. These movies feel like Aleksei’s way of dealing with not only his own history, but that of a country that strayed so far from its ideals he couldn’t find a way to make sense inside its borders.

Perhaps realizing that dealing in facts would mean making a film no one would ever see, German's lifelong passion project was an adaptation of a metaphor-rich sci-fi novel by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky called Hard To Be A God. He’d always intended it to be his first film, but it didn’t pan out that way. The story goes that when the novel was adapted in 1989 by theatre veteran Peter Fleischmann, the brothers Strugatsky were less than pleased. They thought Fleischmann’s approach (turning it into straight pablum a la Krull or Outlaw of Gor, but with a detached, cool Berliner energy that works against it) was all wrong. Their novel could only be handled by a Russian who shared their reference points and lived through the same winters. Someone who'd really understand what they were trying to say. Someone like Aleksei German, for instance. German worked on his adaptation for years, shooting from 2000-2006, stopping the incredibly complicated editing process when he died in February of 2013, leaving the finishing touches to his wife and son. There’s a touching continuity to his family carrying on his legacy, just as he’d done for his father, but the truth is that losing German felt more than tragic. It felt deeply unfair. It seemed as though a conspiracy that had lasted most of his adult life had finally swallowed him whole. Even his wikipedia page has a tone of hostile ambivalence, like an intern went in and changed key adjectives and verbs to make his achievements sound unearned.

Whether or not the Brothers Strugatsky ever actually said that German was the only man for the job of adapting Hard To Be A God, the fact remains that few directors endured the whips and scorns of a government that seemed to actively resent his existence. This made him uniquely qualified to tell the story of a civilization stuck in the dark ages. Tossing out just about everything except what felt true to the central conceit - mainly the drunken antihero’s perpetual snit as he drifts around a world he's not allowed to change - German hasn't so much made a movie as engineered a case of Stendhal Syndrome. There is no way to avoid being sucked into the slithering bowels of this film. It lassos you and drags you across 3 hours of mud and every sort of sec-and-excretion. On paper it's worth mentioning that the film is set in the future, and the protagonist is a scientist sent from earth to monitor alien life on a planet where educating yourself is a criminal act. In reality, the film is about earth right now and the abhorrent way we treat artists and intellectuals. How we stamped out revolution, egalitarianism and positive invention. How we no longer put our energy into bringing people together, just pointing out our differences and allowing xenophobes to commit crimes based on imaginary imbalances of character. It's a planet where everyone has abandoned reason and replaced it with a dimwitted equality and to stand apart from the public is to risk random, horrifying execution. 

German achieves total immersion in this world through a three-pronged attack. First, he jams the frame with extras so deep in character Meryl Streep should be losing Oscars to them, each betraying a lifetime spent in ignorance through a handful of gestures. Second, the camera moves like the inebriated cousin of Terrence Malick's god's eye view in The Tree of Life and The New World. Rather than blinking when its overwhelmed by creation and jumping to the next dizzy steadicam shot, Hard To Be A God stares dumbly for as long as it can manage until it begins to tear up from the smoke and dust in the air. Third, objects and characters rush into the frame like deer jumping in front of your car. There is no time to get used to their presence, nor any use, as they're often gone before any sense can be made of their appearance. Tempting as it is to extend the Malick comparison – it feels more like an inversion of the American poet’s style than a compliment to it – a more useful reference point might be Andrzej Żuławski's half-finished post-punk sci-fi odyssey On The Silver Globe. In that kindred film, memories are recorded on panes like antique photographs. In both films, you become an unremarked upon character in every scene, a sensation helped by people often staring into the lens. Which is a long way of saying that the film doesn’t tell a story so much as crawl through a fully realized, grotesquely tactile landscape. You're in this up to your neck, whether you like it or not.

German’s textural accomplishments cannot be overstated. The world of Arkanar, the fictional region where the film is set, is a living organism. Every inch of every chamber and courtyard seems to serve a function, down to the last jangling trinket. The clean black and white cinematography by Vladimir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko splendidly and unsparingly captures the abject filth that coats every surface. The perfection of the environment is laid like a blanket over all but the faintest narrative concerns. Our scientist hero has assumed the identity of a minor lord called Don Rumata (German all but excises this bit of backstory from the novel), which grants him a little power over his fellow cretins. One senses that he’s gotten a little too in character. The film follows Rumata as he navigates the faintest glimmer of a social and political hierarchy and loses his footing due to poor planning, or possibly trusting the wrong people. Rumata’s knowledge of Earth keeps him smarter than even his most cunning enemy, but he assigns a logic to them to which they consistently fail to conform. His brain is a curse and a crutch, the reason he’ll always be an outsider. His wallowing, in self-congratulatory pride, in muck, in pity, in his imagined freedom and regality, is the engine that propels the film’s POV-camera through every gross corridor of Arkanar. The sights that await him can never be scrubbed from one’s conscious: a gang of prisoners carrying their gallows on their shoulders like a parade float, a catapult-sized torture device shaped like a phallus, a man drowned in an improvised toilet, bas-reliefs of sexual torments adorning the halls of a lord, soldiers called to attention and puking as if on cue, bizarre wooden symbols built up in a town square, casting eerie shadows on the wall as the indifferent night mist blows through. It’s an outlandish series of events that took boundless imagination, not to mention an obsessive-compulsive attention to detail. The blocking alone is mind-boggling, and it's all in service of one of the simplest theses German could have dreamt up: If living up to our potential isn’t incentivized, and we continue to punish development and free-thinking, we’ll sink into darkness so quickly it’ll be hard to remember a time when growth was possible. Hard To Be A God is a disgusting, disorienting journey into a foreign land where no future seems guaranteed.

Rumata’s aimless wandering takes him in and out of womb spaces that don’t offer the comfort and safety he wishes from them. Those zones and the appearance of Leonid Yarmolnik in the lead role hint at shades of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible, about a man who loses his soul in his mad quest for power. Don Rumata already has power and a tenuous grip on his soul when we meet him. He’s been separated from earth, his mother and father, for so long that he forgets what values they imparted to him. He tries continually to crawl back inside any sheltering body that will have him, desperate to return to a state of innocence, away from the responsibility of having to be himself. He wants to cast off responsibilities to his people, past and present, to live without continuity. German too had been absent his father, the man he paid tribute so often before the government took that away from him. Russia ground down German’s connection to his past, his home and family into a pile of ashes. Would that the aftermath of an epoch-making statement not be defined by the absence of its creator but German is gone now, too, and he’s left us with a double-edged sword of a parting gift. On the one hand, we have one of the most most damning appraisals the human race has ever received. On the other, one of the richest works of art ever produced. All that remains is to see which we rise to. We live in a world where German’s films can finally be found and watched, which makes it a better place than the one he lived in.

1 comment:

Timbo said...

Beautiful comment, true to the movie and to our own circumstances. Chapeau