Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Observing the Imperial Gaze: On Peter Fleischmann's Es Ist Nicht Leicht ein Gott Zu Sein

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Observing the Imperial Gaze: On Peter Fleischmann's Es Ist Nicht Leicht ein Gott Zu Sein

Article excerpt

Peter Fleischmann's Es ist nicht leicht ein Gott zu sein (Hard to Be a God; West Germany/France/USSR/Switzerland 1989), based on Arkadi and Boris Strugatskii's 1964 novel Trudno byt' bogom (Hard to Be a God ), is allegedly one of the weakest film adaptations ever made. Its world premiere was as an unofficial competitor at the 1989 Venice International Film Festival, and not without reason. When it was released in German cinemas in January 1990, film critics were horrified. The most prestigious German weekly newspaper Die Zeit observed,

Fleischmann's art of direction already fails because of the simplest problems of physical cinema. It's hard to film a chase, a sword fight or even a kiss. For Fleischmann ... it was too hard. The film ... is a writing on the wall, a warning about Euro film, a pamphlet against international major productions and a proof that Europeans can't defeat Hollywood with the methods of Hollywood. (Seidl)1

The most influential German daily newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, noted that the director disappointingly spoiled all the great opportunities the Strugatskiis' novel offered. Instead he made a 'stereotyped reconstruction of the plot', where everything looks as if it is the most natural thing in the world, while the actors play their parts without obsessions and surprises: 'No one succeeds in animating with a salutary or destructive sense of mission the huge contingent of pictures and scenes, no one is able to tear them out of the triviality of warhorse-fun, gothic cosmetics and folkloristic arrangements' (Richter 'Prinz' 31).

The Soviet critics, preoccupied with the wave of Glasnost film releases, hardly noticed this film about subcultural 'neformaly' on an alien planet, as one critic put it (Revich 13).2 Contemporary Russian film historians reviewed Fleischmann's movie as a 'complete failure', which lost the entire 'philosophical-social subtext' of the Strugatskiis' novel and had only one positive merit, that the Soviet side earned a lot of money (Shcherbakov-Zhukov 57). German film scholars Rolf Giesen and Bernhard Kempen included it in their anthology of the worst sf films ever made because, they argue, its production relies on improvisation to conceal its dilettantism, alcoholism and artistic impotence (Giesen and Kempen 34-6).3 Unfortunate circumstances surrounding the film's release contributed to this negative reception. Some weeks after its Venice premiere, the Berlin Wall was torn down and the Soviet Union witnessed its hardest years of food shortages and began an economic downturn, just as its citizens began to read and view all the until-recently forbidden Hollywood action and sf movies. Even the most prominent Russian filmmakers and writers struggled to find viewers and readers, and thus a Soviet-German coproduction like Es ist nicht leicht ein Gott zu sein, lacking the appeal of being dissident or formerly forbidden, was destined to flop.

If we look at the film from a cultural studies point of view, however, there are reasons to rescue it from oblivion. First, the ludicrous circumstances and conditions of its making provide instructive insights into the illusions and confusions of East-West relations towards the end of the Cold War. Second, its screenplay and direction cast light on Fleischmann's considerable efforts to update its content without retreating from the Strugatskiis' allegorical social criticism (see Howell; Gomel). From a postcolonial perspective, then, the film questions some dominant Hollywood styles and narratives by demonstrating that such popular pictures of humanitarian intervention and individual heroism are a product of 'pathological' desire, dysfunctional communication and the omnipresent imperial gaze.

The making of the first Soviet sf blockbuster

The production of Es ist nicht leicht ein Gott zu sein was initially planned by Soviet film studios as the first serious, large-scale effort to produce a high-quality, internationally successful sf blockbuster that could compete with Hollywood films. …

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