and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about The Revenant (2015), Alejandro González Iñárritu’s bizarre picturesque slapstick epic of wilderness survival, in which beardy absurd terminator Leonardo DiCaprio repeatedly treads on the ends of rakes that slap him in the face as he – always out-bearded, always out-gurned – pursues Tom Hardy through Werner Herzog’s old stomping ground and a maze of try-hard-wannabe allusions to Tarkovsky, is not the indigenous-washing sequence in which Leo’s magical negro is played by a native American indian, nor is it the faithful historical reconstruction of a world without exposure, hypothermia or women, no, the very best thing about The Revenant is the sheer chutzpah of beginning with the line “It’s okay son… I know you want this to be over”…
1 out of 10 for this awful film.
I only went to see it because Jason Wyngarde told it me it contained all the things I like in films: trains, dogs and monkeys. He told me that by putting all three together in one film, Tarkovsky transcended genre.
Jason Wyngarde is a fool.
The film earns its one star out of ten for the dog. He is pretty cool. He shows up about halfway through in what you think is a dream sequence but then sticks around when everyone wakes up and pops up again from time to time. He is affectionate and energetic, without being too bouncy, and he is still young enough that his paws sometimes seem too big for him. He is well-trained, unlike the rest of the cast, and gives the best performance in the whole film.
Tarkovsky clearly does not know what he thinks about trains. He sends mixed messages about them.
For a long time it feels like you are only going to hear them off screen, and then when you do eventually see them they are disappearing into the fog. But then the Stalker and his clients find a motor-driven buggy that travels along the railway line. The sequence is so exhilarating, capturing the real experience of riding the rails, that the film turns into colour to express how magical it all is. But then they ditch the buggy and for some reason, the inattentive Tarkovsky forgets to turn the colour back off.
And the rest of the film seems to blame trains for everything, from the polluted landscape to the glass the naughty girl carelessly breaks at the end.
From what I could make out from the people leaving the cinema behind me, a lot of people think that the dog, who is yelping offscreen, is moving it with his telekinetic powers. (Jason Wyngarde probably thinks that, too.)
Oh, and the monkey is not even a monkey.
Three walk through the Zone.
Nothing happens. Not a thing.
A glass moves, oddly.
Ultimately, the opening text tells us, the war became unnecessary. Perhaps it was a mutation, or perhaps bone-deep ideology just changed. But people gave up on survival, on perpetuating the species. (The cost, after all, had proven terrible.) The remnant population
slowly started to decrease, wane and languish like the dying flame of a candle that barely resists extinguishing itself. … The elderly passed on and the young became elderly. The news of the sporadic birth of a child, probably conceived out of neglect, was received with condescending smiles the same as in those who mock ignorant people who with pride show off their out of style garments.
Crumbs begins with a series of gently floating shots, starting with a broad view of the peculiar mineral structures in volcanic landscape of Dallol, before moving in to detail their folded textures and colours. Water washes over the surface, as in something by Tarkovsky; the shots commute each other, as in something by Kubrick. A desert wind blows, accompanied by Atomizador’s throbbing alien score. There are mountains in the distance. A lone figure in a light shirt and darker trousers, with a satchel slung over his shoulder, makes his way through this alien yet terrestrial landscape. He is dwarfish, hunchbacked, deformed in some way. We will learn he is called Candy (Daniel Tardesse).
Among the rusting vehicle carcasses and other long-abandoned matériel are the remnants of a pipeline. In the ruins of the salt-block buildings he finds an artificial Christmas tree, its spindly green plastic branches still furled close to its metal trunk. In the distance he spots a figure (Quino Piñero). A man in a military uniform: a medal on his chest, a swastika on his armband, and a rat mask covering his head, grey ears visible above the gas mask covering his face. Candy flees. Distortion fills the soundtrack. Above the salt flats across which Candy runs floats a spaceship, an immense citadel hovering in these post-apocalyptic Ethiopian skies.
The tree is a gift for his lover, a young black woman called Sayat or Birdy (Selam Tesfayie) who makes sculptures from salvaged metal. In the derelict bowling alley in which they live – surrounded by fetishes hanging from trees like those in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper 1974) – the ball return mechanism has started to activate itself. Sayat suggests that there must be a magnetic field being directed at it, as if someone, maybe the spaceship, which has been ‘rusting in the sky since the beginning of the big war’, is trying to send them a message. When Candy investigates the mechanism – like Henry (Jack Nance) in Eraserhead (Lynch 1977) looking behind the radiator – he finds something unexpected down inside it: a voice, that will later be revealed as that of a skinny black Santa (Tsegaye Abegaz) who might be very small or just a long way away.
Candy undertakes a quest to find out what is going on – a quest that will take him through the stunning green highlands around the Wenchi crater-lake, to a witch who won’t let him pay for her insights with the pristine copy of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous LP which is supposed to finance his wedding, and then on through an abandoned rail depot to the old city, and through it to a derelict lakeside zoo and a violent encounter with Santa Claus…
I have no idea whether there is a specific folktale lurking in the back of all this, an Ethiopian legend akin to the Malian epic of the crippled warrior-king Sundjata, and accounts of Llansó’s improvisational style of direction – responding to what he finds on location – suggest that while there might be some such narrative armature the final film is unlikely to map onto it with any kind of precision.
It is a film full of allusions: Candy is challenged by a masked warrior on horseback who gallops up like something out of Zardoz (Boorman 1974) or The Planet of the Apes (Schaffner 1968); a bowling ball rolls mysteriously across the floor, like something from The Shining (Kubrick 1980); a rail line subsiding on a narrow stretch of land built across the middle of a lake recalls China Miéville’s Railsea (2012). There are also bits that reminded me of Space is the Place (Coney 1974) and Save the Green Planet! (Joon-Hwan Jang 2003).
There is the detritus of a lost world, given fresh meaning: a plastic figurine of TMNT Donatello, a Max Steel ‘Force Sword’ still attached to its colourful cardboard backing, a Michael Jackson album, a figure of a child asleep on a mattress, all of which are seen within the story world; and then once more, floating in Earth orbit as gracefully as a Kubrick weapons platform or space shuttle, while the voice of the shopkeeper (Mengistu Bermanu) describes them in relation to their production in the pre-apocalypse and their use by the legendary Molegon warriors – an amulet, an instiller of courage before battles, a reminder of the adored Andromeda baby and of its twin who lived in the pyramid of Cheops. There is an altar to Michael Jordan. Sayat, perhaps awaking from a dream, intones a fervent prayer to a string of deities: ‘Einstein IV, San Pablo Picasso, Stephen Hawking III, Justin Bieber VI, Paul McCartney XI, Carrefour!’ (Though the film is as dark as the storm raging outside, and it is possible she is chanting this litany as she masturbates.) There are also a lot of plastic dinosaurs, and a plastic lion. There are children’s superhero costumes. There is a cinema that has screened Süpermen Dönüyor, Kunt Tulgar’s 1979 Turkish Superman knock-off, every day for forty years, including the day on which we get a glimpse inside.
Candy’s quest brings him to a landscape littered with abandoned trains, rusting wheel-less cadavers, somehow both modern and prehistoric – like the rotting symbols of earlier waves of (failed) colonial expansion Conrad describes in Heart of Darkness (1899). Among them he finds a man who used to work for the railway (Girma Gebrehiwot), but the man does not speak. When Candy starts claiming that he is from another world – rocky, frozen, windswept – the man does not hear him; the discordant soundtrack – part Sun Ra, appropriately enough, part Texas Chain Saw Massacre – drowns his voice (a little like the bar scene in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (Lynch 1992)).
Candy moves on, past corroding watertowers that resemble abandoned Martian war machines. All he wants is to be able to return to his home planet, taking Sayat – and the child he intuits she is carrying – with him.
Some reviews of Crumbs suggest that its elliptical narrative, its congeries and clusters of salvage and allusion, defy meaning. That this rather gentle, beautiful, endearing film is somehow impenetrable. Such reviews are simply and straightforwardly wrong. Crumbs – probably the best sf film to come out of Africa so far, and by a wide margin the best sf film of 2015 – is as easy to follow as the autobahn down which we are pellmelling to the end of the world.
We are living in the capitalocene moment, the gutted shell that is the present of the future Llansó depicts. The toys and costumes and other absurd relics, some in their original packaging, represent what Evan Calder Williams calls salvagepunk’s returning-repressed ‘idiosyncrasy of outmoded things’.
If I have one anxiety about this film it is that the unfamiliar landscapes it shows us are so beautiful they seem desirable. In this, it speaks to something dark in us. The thanatopic social sadism, recently anatomised by Miéville, the ‘thuggish idiot’s prometheanism’ that proclaims climate change is good for business; that longs with ‘spiteful glee’ for the further ruination of developing countries and the additional edge it will give to first-world corporations. That yearning to wipe the slate clean. To purge the Earth of the human stain.
[Many thanks to Miguel Llansó, Ewa Bojanowska and New Europe Film Sales for giving me access to a copy of the film; and to China for flexing his celebrity to make it happen.]
Miéville, China. ‘On Social Sadism’, Salvage # 2: Awaiting the Furies. 17-49.
Williams, Evan Calder. Combined and Uneven Apocalypse: Luciferian Marxism. Ropley: Zero Books, 2010.
 A ghost town in northern Ethiopia, build for potash mining in the early twentieth century. Photos here – also google ‘Dallol’ for images of the astonishing landscape. And while you’re at it, take a look at ‘Wenchi crater-lake’.
Assuming it is even possible, to what extent and in what ways should adaptations remain faithful to their sources? All manner of possibilities emerge when the adaptation is free of the constraints of respectability, accessibility and banal fidelity that a studio budget tends to entail, and when the source is supposedly ‘unfilmable’, as is the case with Weiss’s independently financed adaptation of JG Ballard’s novel.
Ballard’s and Ballardian prose is recited in voiceover and by carefully positioned actors – affectless mannequins in static tableaux. The camera is locked or tracks slowly. Interspersed is footage of Hiroshima survivors, crash test dummies, nuclear tests, Kennedy’s assassination, plastic surgery, the Challenger disaster, the war in Vietnam, penetration, Marilyn Monroe. A voiceover posits that the film was shot by Dr Travis (Victor Slezak), misappropriating the institution’s equipment and funds, as therapy, but is uncertain for whom.
Often, however, this mixture of stock footage and re-enacted scenes feels more like a high-end BBC documentary profile of Ballard, with the talking heads and explicatory arc excised. Some shots are strikingly composed, particularly when situating humans among architecture, but they lack the clinical precision of Cronenberg’s adaptation of Ballard’s Crash (Canada/UK 1996) and never achieve the gorgeous insanities of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle (1995–2002). The static set-ups and slow tracks suggest Tarkovksy, but lack his attention to rhythm, to sculpting in time. While the film is never as torpid as, say, a classical Hollywood adaptation of Hemingway, its languor is strangely at odds both with Ballard’s surrealist prose montage and the media landscape he dissected. Imagine what Godard or Tsukamoto could have done with such material.
Several times Weiss tilts his camera upwards from the ground at his feet to an object further away, opening up a wider perspective. This tension between the detail and the whole pins Weiss and his film in the angle between two depths of field. Take for example the long shot of Karen Novotny (Anna Juvander), being fucked from behind while leaning out of a car window, naked apart from a picture of Ronald Reagan strapped over her face. The camera tracks in slowly, the music on the soundtrack adding a sense of respectfulness rather than juxtaposition. Before we can make out the image over her appropriately bored face, we know it will be of Reagan. All the elements are there, but somehow together they become less than their sum. The sequence only comes alive when old movie footage of Reagan, apparently looking askance at these shenanigans, is briefly inserted. This captures something of Ballard’s impish absurdism but nothing that might shock, however fleetingly, the bourgeoisie.
The Atrocity Exhibition is not so much an adaptation as an ambiguous memorialisation, turning Ballard into a suburb of European art cinema.
A version of this review originally appeared in Science Fiction Film and Television, 1.2 (2008), 359–60.
Although it has always produced outstanding sf and fantasy—from Jean Cocteau and Luis Buñuel to Andrei Tarkovsky and Jan Švankmajer—there was a time, back before I was born, when European arthouse cinema was synonymous with both cinematic and science-fictional excellence, when the nouvelle vague gave us Georges Franju’s Les Yeux sans visage (1959), Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), Alain Resnais’s L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) and Je t’aime, je t’aime (1967), Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) and Weekend (1967). This period is best captured not by Bernardo Bertolucci’s joyless The Dreamers (2003) but, for all its gaucheness, Roman Coppola’s CQ (2001), in which a young American filmmaker in Paris, desperate to be Godard, ends up completing a pop-camp sf movie even more heavily indebted to Mario Bava’s Danger Diabolik (1968) than to Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968), in which a sexy space-age spy must infiltrate the lunar base of Billy Zane’s Che-like rebel leader.
Over the last couple of years, European arthouse directors have again been drawn to the fantastic and science-fictional. Thomas Vinterberg’s It’s All About Love (2003), Olivier Assayas’s Demonlover (2002) and Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46 (2004) attempt, with mixed success, to populate their Dickian/cyberpunk-flavoured tales with characters who at least vaguely resemble human beings. Vinterberg manages to produce several genuinely strange and estranging moments, but is undercut by a star-based narrative logic which forestalls complex intersubjectivity and opens the door to the worst kind of greetings card sentimentality; Assayas generates some sense of the perpetual displacement of the subject jetting through the spaces of global capital, but his film is no Pattern Recognition; and Winterbottom’s impressive vision of the future which looks just like the contemporary Third World succumbs to the picturesque (and a really problematic rape scene in which Maria (Samantha Morton) literally asks for it). In Fear X (2002), Nicolas Winding Refn transforms a Wisconsin which already looked pretty alien—positively Canadian—into somewhere distinctly Lynchian, while Mathieu Kassovitz’s Gothika (2003) occasionally rises above the ordinariness required of a Halle Berry vehicle. Although all of these films contain things to recommend them—some more than others—none of them measure up to those of forty years ago or, indeed, to Michael Haneke’s Le temps du loup.
An immaculate MPV glides along a forest road. In it are Georges (Daniel Duval) and Anne (Isabelle Huppert) Laurent, their mid-teens daughter, Eva (Anaïs Demoustier), and her younger brother Ben (Lucas Biscome). Fleeing the city and some never-specified catastrophe, they have calmly made their way to their weekend house in the country; but a family of strangers have already moved in. When the agonisingly reasonable Georges offers them welcome and a share of their supplies, he is killed and Anne and the children are turned away. Despite knowing the Laurents, local villagers refuse them aid or shelter, and so they begin to wander the countryside, first joining up with an unnamed boy (Hakim Taleb) and then with a proto-community dominated by the petty tyranny of property-ownership and commerce—a set-up which does not survive the arrival of a larger group of refugees. Together, these displaced people await the arrival of a train which might take them to somewhere better.
It could be a trick of perspective, but the last few years seem to have produced a number of texts which return to the the kind of post-apocalyptic fiction once dismissed as cosy catastrophes (Wright’s A Scientific Romance (1998), Lovegrove’s Untied Kingdom (2003), Roberts’s The Snow (2004), Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain (2004); the TV series The Last Train (1999); movies such as Reign of Fire (Bowman 2002), Twenty Eight Days Later (Boyle 2002), The Day After Tomorrow (Emmerich 2004) and Dawn of the Dead (Snyder 2004)), the best of which display at the very least an occasional flash of New Weird vigour, reinflating—with narrative and, occasionally, wit—a subgenre exhausted by the New Wave. What distinguishes Le temps du loup from them is a quite remorseless austerity, first signalled by the opening titles: small white uncluttered text on a black background, without music or sound. There are no CGI dragons. There are no zombies, enRaged or otherwise. There is no Big Weather. Indeed, it is difficult to reconcile the offscreen murder of Georges with the in-yer-face provocations and hi-jinks of Haneke’s earlier home-invasion movie, Funny Games (1997).
In an accompanying interview, Haneke explains Le temps du loup‘s restraint in terms of not wanting to make a generic disaster movie but a film about personal relationships, of wanting to give the comfortable westerners used to watching the unfolding global catastrophe on TV a taste of what it would be like if it happened to them. In this he succeeds, but not necessarily in the way he intends.
The film relies on ellipses. The nature of the catastrophe is never explained (although livestock burning on a pyre in the background of one shot might provide a clue). We do not see Georges’s death or his family having to bury him; we do not see their expulsion from their home or their theft of a bicycle; we do not see Ben’s discovery of his dead budgerigar or a barn going up in flames; we do not see Anne’s response to the letter Eva writes to her dead father, in which she talks about having to careful around her mother as she is on the verge of cracking up; and so on. Along with these omissions, there are also a number of scenes set in a pitch-black night, illuminated intermittently by the flame of a cigarette lighter or a handful of burning straw, and a number of unexplained events. This eschewal extends even to refusing emotional spectacle: when a sick child dies, there is a 30 second shot of hands fashioning a crude cross and placing it on the grave, followed by a two-and-a-half minute shot of the legs of the people gathered around the grave, the only sound being the mourning cries of the child’s out-of-shot mother—and in the extreme distance, as the mourners move off, the flaming torches of an approaching group of refugees creep into shot, blurs of distant light in the falling dark.
The refusal to show does not extend to the characters; rather, all that the camera does is show us their stunned and stunted responses, and in this Haneke seems to be deliberately pursuing the kind of humanist-realism championed half a century ago by André Bazin. The camera’s cool gaze stays resolutely outside of the characters, but frequent long takes provide the time to watch minute gestures and changes of expression and to ponder motivation and meaning. There is, for example, an aching moment when we can see Eva trying to choose between loyalty to a mother ill-equipped to handle the new situation and the teenage boy who has already learned to strip whatever he needs from corpses (and some time later, we see her growing realisation that the boy is differently, but equally, ill-equipped). In the same sequence, a close-up reveals the sorrowful wisdom of the even younger Ben who, unlike his family, knows there is no point running after a passing train, crying for help. This sense of externality counters Haneke’s desire to focus on relationships, and perhaps only twice produces the kind of the effect on the viewer he seeks. First, and overwhelmingly, is the sense of disconnection: just as the family have no idea what has happened or what will happen next, so the film’s omissions and ellipses makes the experience of the narrative an uncertain one; while it grips, the succession of incidents also produces a sense of being stunned, akin to that experienced by the characters. Second, the conclusion that Ben reaches, the sacrifice he decides to make to save his family, simultaneously comes out of the blue and is inevitable. It is a moment every bit as human and as terrible as the scene in Thomas Disch’s ‘The Asian Shore’ about the young boy struggling to carrry two buckets of water whose shoes come off every time he takes a few steps; and the ground is freezing; and every time he puts his shoes back on he spills more of the water over himself; and he is freezing; and just as Disch’s narrator cannot help because he cannot communicate with the boy, so we cannot save Ben from his decision even though we know it will not work and its cost is unimaginably high.
The low-budget Last Night (McKellar 1998), dubbed ‘the Canadian Armageddon’, stands out among the recent ‘not-so-cosy’ catastrophes, not least because it refuses the apocalypse a post-. Similarly, and like Weekend, to which its long tracking shots might pay homage, Le temps du loup is ultimately not about life after the apocalypse—the survivors are numb, powerless; there is no attempt to rebuild civilisation—but about life during the apocalypse going on around us, mostly unseen. Like Benjamin’s angel of history (and, perhaps, Code 46), Haneke’s film sees not progress but one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage. The closing shot, which lasts for over two minutes, is filmed, the soundtrack implies, from aboard a train as it races through a verdant French countryside. We do not see the train. We do not know whether it is the one for which the characters have been waiting or, if so, whether it stopped to pick them up. We do not even know whether it is real, or merely a fantasy like the one spoken of in the preceding scene (‘maybe tomorrow, there’ll be … a big car racing up. … And a guy will get out and say everything’s fine again. And water will flow in our mouths with roast pigeons and maybe the dead will come back to life’). And while the final shot shows that the land, like the people whose story we’ve followed, endures, it is a land, perhaps significantly, deserted of people.
2015 marks the 120th anniversary of sf cinema. This is the seventh part of a year-by-year list of films I’d recommend (not always for the same reasons).
Aliens (James Cameron) – original cinema cut
The Fly (David Cronenberg)
Hombre mirando al sudeste/Man Facing South East (Eliseo Subiela)
Kamikaze (Didier Grousset)
Kin-dza-dza! (Georgiy Daneliya)
Mauvais Sang (Léos Carax)
Offret/The Sacrifice (Andrei Tarkovsky)
RocketKitKongoKit (Craig Baldwin)
Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo)
Caller (Arthur Seidelmann)
Incident at Raven’s Gate (Rolf de Heer)
Na srebrnym globie/On the Silver Globe (Andrzej Zulawski)
They Live (John Carpenter)
Darkman (Sam Raimi)
Frankenhooker (Frank Henenlotter)
Hardware (Richard Stanley)
Bis ans Ende der Welt/Until the End of the World (Wim Wenders) 280 minute director’s cut
Delicatessen (Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
Naked Lunch (David Cronenberg)
964 Pinocchio (Shozin Fukui)
Poison (Todd Haynes)
Terminator II: Judgment Day (James Cameron)
Tetsuo II: Bodyhammer (Tsukamoto Shinya)
Alien 3 (David Fincher)
Dongfang San Xia/The Heroic Trio (Johnny To)
Gauyat Sandiu Haplui/Saviour of the Soul (Corey Yuen)
Gayniggers from Outer Space (Morten Lindberg)
Orlando (Sally Potter)
Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (Craig Baldwin)
Acción mutante (Alex de la Iglesia)
Demolition Man (Marco Brambilla)
Sankofa (Haile Gerima)
Cosmic Slop (Reginald Hudlin, Warrington Hudlin and Kevin Rodney Sullivan)
Welcome II the Terrordome (Ngozi Onwurah)
part eight, 1995-2004
2015 marks the 120th anniversary of sf cinema. This is the sixth part of a year-by-year list of films I’d recommend (not always for the same reasons).
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman)
Shivers (David Cronenberg)
Le couple témoin/The Model Couple (William Klein)
Eraserhead (David Lynch)
Izbavitelji/The Rat Saviour (Krsto Papic)
The Last Wave (Peter Weir)
Star Wars (George Lucas)
Coma (Michael Crichton)
Dawn of the Dead (George Romero)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufmann)
It Lives Again (Larry Cohen)
Jubilee (Derek Jarman)
The Long Weekend (Colin Eggleston)
Piranha (Joe Dante)
Test Pilota Pirx/Pilot Prix’s Inquest (Marek Piestrak)
Alien (Ridley Scott)
The Brood (David Cronenberg)
‘Hukkunud Alpinisti’ hotel/Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (Grigori Kromanov)
Mad Max (George Miller)
Sengoku Jietai/G.I. Samurai (Kôsei Saitô)
Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky)
Alligator (Lewis Teague)
Escape from New York (John Carpenter)
Gosti iz Galaksije/Visitors from the Galaxy (Dušan Vukotić)
Mad Max 2 (George Miller)
Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden)
Videodrome (David Cronenberg)
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (W.D. Richter)
The Brother from Another Planet (John Sayles)
Dune (David Lynch)
Forbrydelsens Element/Element of Crime (Lars von Trier)
Repo Man (Alex Cox)
The Terminator (James Cameron)
Threads (Mick Jackson)
2015 marks the 120th anniversary of sf cinema. This is the fifth part of a year-by-year list of films I’d recommend (not always for the same reasons).
Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (Jean-Luc Godard)
Giperboloid Ingenera Garina/Engineer Garin’s Death Ray (Alexander Gintsburg)
It Happened Here (Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo)
Sins of the Fleshapoids (Mike Kuchar)
Terrore nello Spazio/Planet of the Vampires (Mario Bava)
The War Game (Peter Watkins)
Daikaiju Gamera/Gamera (Noriaka Yurasa)
Fahrenheit 451 (François Truffaut)
Gamera Tai Barugon/Gamera versus Baragon (Shigeo Tanaka)
Konex Sprna v Hotelu Ozon/The End of August at the Hotel Ozone (Jan Schmidt)
Seconds (John Frankenheimer)
Sedmi Kontinent/The Seventh Continent (Dušan Vukotić)
Tanin no kao/The Face of Another (Hiroshi Teshigahara)
Ukradena Vzducholod/The Stolen Dirigible (Karel Zeman)
The Craven Sluck (Mike Kuchar)
Diabolik (Mario Bava)
Je t’aime, je t’aime (Alain Resnais)
King Kong No Gyakushu/King Kong Escapes (Ishirô Honda)
Privilege (Peter Watkins)
Quatermass and the Pit (Roy Ward Baker)
Week End (Jean-Luc Godard)
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)
Brasil Anno 2000 (Walter Lima, Jr)
Mister Freedom (William Klein)
Night of the Living Dead (George Romero)
Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner)
Wild in the Streets (Barry Shear)
Change of Mind (Robert Stevens)
Gladiatorerne/The Peace Game (Peter Watkins)
Scream and Scream Again (Gordon Hessler)
Stereo (David Cronenberg)
Zeta One (Michael Cort)
The Andromeda Strain (Robert Wise)
Crimes of the Future (David Cronenberg)
Na Komete/On the Comet (Karel Zeman)
THX 1138 (George Lucas)
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (J. Lee Thompson)
Death Line (Gary Sherman)
Solyaris/Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky)
The Asphyx (Peter Newbrook)
The Crazies (George Romero)
Flesh for Frankenstein (Paul Morrisey)
Una gota de sangre para morir amando/Murder in a Blue World (Eloy de la Iglesia)
It’s Alive (Larry Cohen)
Kala Dhandha/Black Mail (Vijay Anand)
Nippon Chinbotsu/Japan Sinks (Shirô Moritani)
Nuits rouges (Georges Franju)
Phase IV (Saul Bass)
La planète sauvage/Fantastic Planet (René Laloux)
The Spook Who Sat by the Door (Ivan Dixon)
Yilmayan seytan/The Deathless Devil (Yilmaz Atadeniz)
The Cars that Ate Paris (Peter Weir)
Dark Star (John Carpenter)
The Parallax View (Alan J Pakula)
Space is the Place (John Coney)
The Stepford Wives (Bryan Forbes)
Terminal Man (Mike Hodges)
Hard to Be a God takes the bare armature of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s 1964 novel of the same name – human observers embedded among the population of an alien world, which resembles the terrestrial middle ages and in which the first traces of a Renaissance are being brutally expunged – and does something remarkable with it.
At times it reminded me of Andrei Rublev, of Aguirre, Wrath of God, of Seven Samurai, of Come and See, of The Seventh Seal or The Virgin Spring, of Tetsuo, of Erasherhead, of Jodorowsky, of A Field in England, of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And yet it is not remotely like them, or like anything else.
As early as the 1960s, Aleksei German was the Strugatskys’ director of choice, and it only took him half a century to make the film. His earliest attempt was halted when Soviet forces invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, since a film about a fledgling Renaissance being crushed by an invading totalitarian power was deemed untimely. (German was also briefly involved in Peter Fleischmann’s disastrous 1989 adaptation.) In 2000, he finally began what would become a six-year-long shoot (partly in the Czech Republic), but he died in 2013, leaving his filmmaker son, Aleksei German, Jr., to finalise the edit and the soundtrack.
The Strugatskys’ often comic tale poses a series of ethical questions around the (im)possibility of humanitarian intervention akin to those with which Star Trek’s prime directive narratives feebly wrestle. Are there circumstances in which violence can be used to cut short the violence of others? Is it more cruel passively to observe than it is to step in with an overwhelming force that will turn a society on its head? What is the ethical cost to the observer/intervener? The Strugatsky’s novel can also be understood as an expression of anxiety about the re-emergence of Stalinism as the Khruschev-era Thaw drew to a close.
German transforms this material into something marvellously different.
A black-and-white world of rain and mud and shit and piss and snot and blood. Of raw sewage and rotting carcasses. Of grotesquery and deformity. Of violence and death. Of the idiocy, as Marx might say, of feudal life.
The frame is frequently crowded. Depth of field is constantly destabilised. Fog and smoke and pouring rain obscure the distinction between earth and sky, clouding out the horizon and disrupting perspective. Objects repeatedly cross the frame inches from the camera, blocking our view of what we might otherwise assume to be the subjects of the film. Characters repeatedly look straight at the camera, not to break the fourth wall but as if it is not there. Or as if the camera cannot be permitted to be in the world without being part of the world; and in this the camera is like the terrestrial observers. They are not permitted to stay, like a Federation away team, separate from the world they visit. They are immersed in it. Mired. And so are we.
It is like reading Rabelais, or reading Bakhtin’s reading of him; and in its relentlessness, Hard to Be a God is really funny.
The few Anglophone reviews of the film I’ve seen complain about the absence of a clear plot. But narrative obliquity is the point. Life doesn’t have a plot or narrative arcs. We are just in the middle of all this stuff going on all the time. And it is comical and absurd and messy and always in our faces.
If I’d been watching it alone, I’d have turned off the not-that-helpful subtitles.
Hard to be a God is obsessed with the odours of the world it can only disclose indirectly, and with the textures of the world. It continually uses the limitations of the medium – the gulf between the tactile and the visual – to undercut the fiction of the neutral, uninvolved observer. Despite the often troubling content of the image, the pristine cinematography is often too beautiful to bear. Don Remata’s spotless white clothes and handkerchieves function in a similar manner – in their absurdity, they are reminders of the full and unavoidable intersubjectivity of being in the world.
Hard to Be a God might not be your cup of tea. That is your loss.