Back in 1975, in a review of Thomas M. Disch's collection Getting Into Death
, M. John Harrison highlighted a passage in one story, 'The Asian Shore', and excoriatingly compared its uncompromising realism with the airless constructions and frictionless problems and discourse of much contemporary SF. In the story, an American recently moved to Istanbul, haunted by an identity crisis, crosses the Bosphorus to the Asian side of the city and comes across a boy crying by a public fountain. It's winter. The boy has been sent to collect water in two buckets, but he is shod in plastic slippers with a thong that must be grasped by the first and second toes. When he tries to walk, freezing water slops onto his feet, his numb toes lose his grip, and he cannot keep his slippers on. He can't leave them behind, and he can't leave the water buckets, either. But as far as the story's non-Turkish-speaking protagonist is concerned, the worst of it is the horror of his own helplessness:
He could not go up to the boy and ask him where he lived, lift him and carry him -- he was so small -- to his home. Nor could he scold the child's parents for having sent him out on this errand without proper shoes or winter clothes. He could not even take up the buckets and have the child lead him to his home. For each of these possibilities demanded that he be able to speak to the boy, and this he could not do.
Harrison's explication of that passage made a huge impression on me at the time; as far as I was concerned, it epitomised the division between genre science fiction and the ambitions of the New Wave. And I was strongly reminded of it while watching Aleksei German's film Hard To Be a God
, just released on Blu-ray in the UK.
An adaptation of Arkady and Bros Strugatsky's science fiction novel, it's an epic drama the director planned over four decades, spent a dozen years making, and did not live to complete -- the final post-production work was carried out by by his widow and his son. Filmed in black and white, it's set on an alien planet whose people and history are much like our own, except that its nascent Renaissance has been snuffed out by the persecution of intellectuals and artists by a violent sect, the Greys. Its inhabitants are imprisoned by squalor, violence and meaningless ritual. Crumbling buildings are swept by seething rain or muffled by fog, and mired in glutinous lakes of mud and shit through which everyone must struggle on their daily rounds.
The film's densely imagined, claustrophobic world is depicted in crowded, busy scenes that deliberately echo the paintings of Breugel pere and fils, and Heironymus Bosch (many of the extras were chosen for their resemblance to characters in their work), and the restless camera not only immerses the viewer in the action but also becomes a character in the film. Passers-by often turn to address it with complaints or knowing looks; it roves with a kind of avid detachment over faces and animals, corpses and atrocities, peers under tables or into corners of rooms while elsewhere something else is always going on. Passages are reminiscent of the films of Terry Gilliam (especially Jabberwocky
), Sergei Eistenstein's Ivan the Terrible
, and Elim Klimov's World War 2 masterpiece Come and See
, but the sheer density of its world-building and its unblinking documentation of human folly and degradation are arresting, exhausting, and wholly unique.
This universal misery is watched and recorded by a small group of anthropologists from Earth. The film's narrative, recounted in elliptical episodes, centers on one of them, Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), who masquerades as a swordfighter descended from a local god. We are never shown the spaceship that brought him and his colleagues to this backward world, but he wears a crystal camera eye, his sword can effortlessly cut through armour, he plays jazz on a complicated clarinet, and affects an ironic detachment. He cuts off the ears of his enemies rather than killing them, and insists on a plentiful supply of hot water and white linen to set himself apart from the grimy, stinking locals, but gradually becomes mired in a struggle between the Greys and a rival sect, and an intricate sequence of betrayals. He wants to do good, but doesn't know how. He wants to stay aloof, but is forced to take violent action to defend himself. And it slowly becomes clear that his seprior powers can have no effect on the dead-end of the planet's civilisation: remove the Greys, and another sect will take its place; kill all the noblemen, and others equally violent and corrupt will take their place.
The parallels between the fantastical world of this compassionate, compelling, witty, intelligent film and our own are obvious; the contrast with much contemporary science fiction, with its super heroes, worlds designed to reward their protagonists, and simplistic morality plays, is as strong as it was forty years ago.