Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Back to the Future in Arkanar: The Strugatskiis, Aleksei German Sr and the Problem of Injustice in Hard to Be a God

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Back to the Future in Arkanar: The Strugatskiis, Aleksei German Sr and the Problem of Injustice in Hard to Be a God

Article excerpt

Introduction: significance

Aleksei Yurevich German's film adaptation of Arkadii and Boris Strugatskii's 1964 Trudno byt' bogom (Hard To Be A God), their eighth novel, has been critically acclaimed as the most intellectually and culturally significant, and certainly the longest-awaited, of any screen version of the brothers' fiction. The 2013 film, also called Trudno byt' bogom (its working title, Istoriia arkanarskoi rezni (The History of the Arkanar Rebellion) is sometimes appended as a subtitle), rivals Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (USSR 1979) and Konstantin Lopushanskii's dystopian cinema as the most philosophical screen adaptation of the Strugatskiis' fiction to date. This reputation (established decades prior to its release) derives from both the original novel's role as political allegory, and German's status as possibly the most insightful, if enigmatic, auteur filmmaker of his generation. The Strugatskiis' subtle linkage of thrilling sf narrative with complex philosophical questions and literary classics lends their novels both cultural resonance and moral authority; their debt to gnostic and cosmist philosophy places their fiction in the same intellectual tradition as the works of Andrei Bely, Mikhail Bulgakov and Andrei Platonov (Howell). Trudno byt' bogom was 'the novel that brought them recognition as serious writers ... such as Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin' (Dalton-Brown 785), not only in Russia but (following its first English translation in 1973) internationally.1 Aleksandr Garros, a contemporary Russian journalist and sf author, calls this novel 'a surprisingly lucid manifesto for the intelligentsia'.

The 'maverick director' Aleksei German Sr, considered by many to be Tarkovsky's artistic equal, nevertheless remains little-known outside Russia (Dolin 'Strange'; Bergan). Like his contemporary and rival Nikita Mikhalkov, most of his films interrogate both the memory and the reality of Russia's Stalinist past, including the atrocities of the secret police and the Gulags (Etkind 163-71). Unlike Mikhalkov's plot-oriented films, however, German's dreamlike diegesis and incidental, often apparently chaotic, action tend to challenge or alienate viewers, especially Western audiences. His most acclaimed films to date, Khrustalev, mashinu! (Khrustalev, My Car!; Russia 1998) and Moi drug Ivan Lapshin (My Friend Ivan Lapshin; USSR 1986), have received negative or minimal Western publicity. Much of this neglect was caused by the long-term 'shelving' - de facto banning - within Russia of four of German's six films; although he was never an explicit dissident, his themes and subtexts sat uncomfortably with the Soviet regime (Beumers). Trudno byt' bogom (Russia 2013),2 posthumously released, was intended by German to be his final film and the consummation of his life's work (Garros; Dolin German).

TBB's combination of sacred text and inspired interpretation has inevitably provoked extremes of adulation (often from Russian viewers) and bemusement (generally among Western critics).3 It is a truism, renewed by every new adaptation of a literary favourite, that film versions of prose fiction tend to be 'radically unfaithful' to both plot and characterisation (Kaveney 9). The Strugatskiis' Trudno byt' bogom, however, has enthralled generations of Russian readers not because of its characters or plot (essentially cognate to the faux-medieval 'sword and sorcery' chronotope of modern fantasy), but by virtue of its core ethical conundrum. This can be crystallised into a single problem: can violence be used morally to avert or punish others' violence and cruelty? The hero spends most of the narrative suspended between two kinds of moral compromise: tolerance of the cruelty he witnesses (the policy to which his training and ethics have committed him) and intervention against it (urged by his instincts). His dilemma might be expressed more broadly. Are there universal moral values that take precedence over the cultural and historical parameters of a given society? …

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