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Why A Visionary Work Over a Decade In the Making Has Dominated the Rotterdam Film Festival

Why A Visionary Work Over a Decade In the Making Has Dominated the Rotterdam Film Festival

Like its sprawling host city, the 43rd International Film Festival Rotterdam’s gargantuan scale hampers assessment and comprehension, let alone pithy overview. Ascending the 600-foot Euromast on the edge of the center affords an impressive, confusing vista of urban development apparently stretching all the way across the flatlands to the horizon. A careful survey of the IFFR catalogue, meanwhile, yields with a tally of 216 new (2013/2014) films running an hour or more, with at least an equal number of shorter works, plus many installations, special events and so on.

The only way to make sense of it all is to plunge in and hope for the best — a comment that also applies to the most talked-about single element of the program at its halfway mark: Alexei German’s “Hard To Be a God” (“Trudno byt’ bogom”), a 177-minute Russian monochrome claustrophobic-epic of quasi-medievalist sci-fi. 

Over a decade in the actual making, having been brewing in his brain since the late sixties, German’s follow-up to “Khrustalyov, My Car” (1998) always had the air of a film maudit. Its notoriously protracted and chaotic production-process was pessimistically chronicled in the 2012 documentary “Playback” — as The Hollywood Reporter’s review sighed, “German’s film remains uncompleted and… is likely to remain so, in which case the fragments which appear in ‘Playback’ are all the public is likely to see of it.”

Spool forward a year, however, and the public got to see way, way more than fragments when “Hard To Be a God” premiered at the Rome Film Festival under tragic circumstances: German had died of heart failure (aged 74) in February 2013, when the film was in post-production — a process then completed by his wife Svetlana Karmalita and his son Alexey Jr. (himself the director of “The Last Train,” “Garpastum” and “Paper Soldier). “Hard To Be a God” thus arrived in Rotterdam under the daunting weight of expectation — even if the American trades had been sniffy in their Rome reviews (“utterly incomprehensible… only German devotees will have sufficient patience” – Variety). 

The long wait, and the colossal effort, however, proved on this occasion to have been emphatically worthwhile (watch the trailer above). This is visionary cinema of truly loopy, uncompromised grandeur, an unremitting but stimulating slog through a swamp of post-narrative confusion which will frustrate and annoy those seeking conventional story-development. On the latter front, it helps to be at least familiar with the 1964 source novel of identical title — and/or Peter Fleischmann’s financially disastrous 1989 West German adaptation (complete with Werner Herzog cameo). Written by brothers Arkadiy and Boris Strugatsky — whose “Roadside Picnic” loosely inspired Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker,” the book is a swashbuckler doubling as a thinly-veiled critique of the USSR’s persecution of artists and intellectuals. 

Near-future Earth scientists travel to a planet which is “identical” to ours but, according to the film’s introductory voiceover, is “about 800 years behind.” The scientists, on a mission to help the development of society towards a Renaissance/Enlightenment era, pass themselves off as aristocrats — the main protagonist Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolkin) is rumored to be the illegitimate offspring of a divine being. This much is graspable from the early stretches, but it quickly becomes apparent that German’s attitude to the plot mirrors Rumata’s permanent mode of cavalier, Olympian disdain. 

Present in every scene, Rumata is a complex, controversial and charismatic figure, lurching around with a world-weary swagger: as magnificently incarnated by the bearded, ursine Yarmolkin, he’s like Toshiro Mifune with the head of Peter Stormare. Rumata’s rugged handsomeness stands out amid the peasant majority in a society run along nebulous but brutally feudal lines (“it has always been like this and always will be”). Where Rumata hulks, the locals skulk and scuttle. Faces are grotesque masks of wizened flesh; leering crones abound; teeth and even eyes seem to be optional — Hieronymous Bosch would have felt right at home here, likewise both Brueghels (Rotterdam’s Boijmans Van Beuningen museum boasts canvases by all three.)

And there’s no getting away from the parade of nastiness: cinematographers Vladimir Ilyin and Yuri Klimenko and their doughty operators stage lengthy sequence after lengthy sequence in which the viewer is led through crowded, fetid, stygian interiors as if by the nose. (Here’s one film that would really benefit from the Smell-o-vision process.) The fourth wall is nonchalantly discarded: the actors peek into the camera with insolent abandon, and our vision is frequently obstructed by all manner of stuff being dangled in front of the lens (chicken-legs, most memorably).

German is aiming to conjure a nightmarish, inescapably sensual experience, immersing us in an mud-puddled, amoral world where bodily-fluids flow and hideously intermingle, torture and battle are everyday events, and dialogue tends towards the deadpan/surreal: “Your grace, someone saw a dude with gills in the creek!” yelps an underling. 

A Gilliamesque gallimaufry of cloacal maximalism, “Hard To Be a God” is often draggy, with bursts of sudden violence punctuating repetitive, sometimes yawn-inducing interludes of torpor and inaction. It makes “Game of Thrones” look like “A Knight’s Tale,” David Lynch’s “Dune” seem like “Return of the Jedi.” Alongside the scale of German’s ambition and the casual, old-school mastery of his execution, every other new feature in the Rotterdam program looks like pretty small beer.

That’s also partly because, at this post-midway point, excitingly fresh new discoveries — supposedly Rotterdam’s raison d’etre and USP — have been so elusive. A pair of Catalan oddities stood out from the pack, however: Sergio Caballero’s “The Distance” (“La Distancia”) and Luis Miñarro’s “Falling Star” (“Stella cadente”) — the latter among 16 films by first/second-time directors contending for the three equal first prizes in the Tiger Competition. 

Three years ago Caballero took a Tiger home with his debut “Finisterrae,” a tartly sardonic skewering of art-movie pretentiousness that played like a parody of Caballero’s fellow, much more internationally-lauded Catalan, Albert Serra. “The Distance” retains the combination of strikingly elegant visuals and bonkers comedy in “Finisterrae,” the piss-take here being aimed (with due poker-faced reverence) at no less a target than the aforementioned “Stalker.” The premise sees a trio of telepathic Russian dwarves hired by an Austrian conceptual artist — a Joseph Beuys type whose clay-encrusted visage makes him look like a reject from the Blue Man Group, and whose walls are covered with complicated-looking equations (eagle-eyed viewers may spot among the chalkings the decidedly non-algebraic formulation C3PO over R2D2. Strong in this one, the force is.)  

The dwarfs’ aim is to steal a certain something from the turbine-room of the Siberian power-station in which the artist has been imprisoned for years — and the film is essentially an 80-minute buildup to the reveal of Caballero’s version of “the great whatsit” from “Kiss Me Deadly.” A protracted, cosmic joke with a punchline that narrowly justifies the baroque, erratically uneven flights of Caballero’s fancy which precede it, “The Distance” nods to “Stalker” on numerous visual levels — the dwarfs trekking through the cavernous post-industrial ruins of the station, cutlery telekinetically moving round a kitchen table. And while Caballero’s larkish, often juvenile approach (heighted to an even more ludicrous degree in his Rotterdam-premiering short “Anche es Castillo/N’importe quoi,” a demonic possession tale acted out by rickety puppets) may seem a heretically insulting way of rethinking Tarkovsky, his style actually harks back to the knockabout humor which enlivens and marbles the Strugatskys’ Canada-set original. 

The same can be said of Alexei Balabanov, another outstanding Russian writer-director who, like Alexei German, died during the first half of 2013, and who took a “Roadside Picnic”-inspired path with his swansong “Me Too” (2012). And while Caballero’s jeu d’esprit never threatens to reach such masterpiece levels, it confirms that “Finisterrae” was far from the freakish fluke it appeared at the time. More than just a jester capering across the world cinema stage, Caballero should be cherished as a contributor to the gaiety of nations, invaluable in times of such dispiriting gloom.

And while deducing wider social/political/economic allegories/messages/commentaries from “The Distance” is about as easy — and relevant — as deciphering the plot of “Hard to Be a God,” there’s no shortage of such layering in Falling Star, a belated (he’s 64!) but highly auspicious directorial debut from veteran producer Miñarro, whose credits (under the “Eddie Saeta” banner) include Caballero’s aforementioned “Finisterrae,” plus Serra’s “Honor of the Knights” and “Birdsong,” Lisandro Alonso’s “Liverpool” and Apichatpong’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.”

Miñarro delves back into Spain’s turbulent 19th century history with “Falling Star,” which provides glimpses into the brief reign (1870-1873) of King Amadeo I. As played by Àlex Brendemühl, whose indigo eyes are surely the most arresting peepers in showbusiness, Amadeo certainly looks regal enough, but after he’s elected monarch he lacks the strength of character necessary to overrule his haughty, dismissive subordinates. 

Essentially a prisoner in his own castle-like palace, the impeccably progressive-minded Amadeo retreats into a world of contemplation and decadent excess, the latter occasioning numerous episodes of explicit male nudity involving his servants Alfredo (Lorenzo Balducci) and ‘El Criat’ (Alex Batllori). Miñarro’s sumptuously-appointed recreations of the kingly days are interspersed with some jarring left-field interludes, including a show-stopping sylvan masturbation scene — executed in tastefully discreet long-shot — involving Alfredo and a watermelon, the fruit consumed by His Majesty in the next sequence via a cut that’s simultaneously delicious and stomach-churning.

Less “The King’s Speech” and more a case of “rock me, Amadeo!,” “Falling Star” plays like a less constipated variation on Serra’s “Story of My Death” (Jimmy Gimferrer shot both pictures, this one a crisply immaculate wafer alongside Serra’s moldy loaf). It’s enlivened by some wild soundtrack choices, juxtaposing Mozart and Puccini alongside modern pop — Brendemühl somewhat arthritically frugs away to a Yé-yé version of “I Only Want To Be With You,” a rare burst of joy for a hapless aristocrat who learns the hard way that uneasy indeed lies the head that wears the crown. A sleek but piercing indictment of monarchy (albeit one yhsy focuses squarely on the ruler himself rather than his impoverished subjects), Miñarro’s exquisite confection contends that, whether or not it’s hard to be a God — and Don Rumata bears his assumed mantle as if to the manner born — to be a king can be a royal pain in the ass.

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