Hard to Be a God [Es ist nicht leicht ein Gott zu sein] (1989)

I have long had an interest in history – not the pre-digested canned history most of us get these days, but the messy and often contradictory details of real events, and the unexpected actions taken by real people, which all too often refuse to fall neatly into the familiar patterns we expect.

This, of course, leaves me deeply suspicious of attempts at trying to force historical events into stages or cycles or a march of progress – or, even worse, extrapolating history from what we think are real trends.

The worst offender was undoubtedly Karl Marx, with his iron laws of history, a notion that he labeled as “scientific” despite his lack of any sort of empirical proof.

But it is an idea which affected a lot of Soviet era SF – including this East German film which started production as the Wall was crumbling.

Earth has discovered a planet in a state of development similar to the most barbarous stereotypes of the Dark Ages (which, naturally, bears little resemblance to the complex realities of that very long and diverse period of history).  They’ve sent a team of historians on a mission to observe the planet – but they are not allowed to affect its development in any way.

But one of those observers has gone native, and Anton, the man sent to bring him home again, is forced to take his place after he is murdered in a botched uprising.  However, as Anton sees those he befriends – and anyone who offers any hope of ending the planet’s cycle of ignorance and violence – tortured and murdered, he finds it harder and harder to maintain his objectivity.

This was a truly remarkable production.  An East German film made jointly with the USSR, whose country of origin no longer existed by the time it was finished, it did something not seen in most Soviet era films:  it brought in a lot of Western talent.  One notes screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, whose long career included work for Pierre Étaix, Luis Buñuel, and the script for The Unbearable Lightness of Being; the creators of the incredible Valerian SF graphic novels, Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières; and legendary director and cameo-maker, Werner Herzog, in a minor role.   Supposedly Peter Ustinov and Kurt Russell were also in talks to join the production and Klaus Kinski was considered for the lead (the resemblance between Anton and Kinski in Aguirre, the Wrath of God is striking).

The end result is a lot like one of those eighties, post-Apocalyptic movies Patrick Swayze was in, with wild hair, a touch of sex and nudity, plenty of martial arts action – and the hero wading into battle slashing away with two swords.  But it is far more intelligent than most American SF of the age.  It manages to ask a number of rather interesting questions – and, to its credit, offers very few answers.  Of course, it is also stuck with a terrible, English language Prog Rock song over the end credits.

But, hey, Patrick would have had one of those too.

Some have compared it to Star Trek, as the historians have a similar Prime Directive.  However, the original novel came out a year earlier than The Original Series.  But the irony here is that, unlike any episode of Star Trek ever, even the observers in the space station above have been corrupted by the violence and passions of the planet they are watching.  Their Utopia is apparently just an accident of history, not a more evolved state.

One of the most impressive parts of the film is how well the two very different worlds – the planet itself and the orbiting station – are integrated into the story.  While very little time is spent in the station, these scenes are among the most striking in the film, because of the way the crew interacts with what they see on their screens.

While this one has been dismissed as routine and unmemorable (particularly by those who like Alexis German’s 2013 version of the story), I found this one remarkably well made and quite entertaining.  It is certainly better than the average SF film of the late Eighties, and Edward Zentara is superb in the leading role.  It seems a shame that our national bias against subtitles keeps interesting films like this from being seen by anyone other than a few completists, diehards and specialists.

But for those willing to live dangerously, and risk watching a subtitled film, this is definitely worth a watch.

Although you never know.  Watching what’s happening on this planet may make you more barbaric.

(English Subtitles available here)

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