Masterpieces are often not all that they're cracked up to be. Take "Hard to Be God," the final film of Russian auteur Aleksei German, which he worked on for the last fifteen years of his life, and was completed after his death. Based on a science-fiction novel from the same writers behind the source material for Tarkovsky's "Stalker," the film tells the bleak story of a scientist sent to live incognito among the inhabitants of the planet Arkanar, where humans are still stuck in the Middle Ages. Despite his best efforts, our hero, Anton (Leonid Yarmolnik) cannot help but become involved in this world's unfolding history. With that kind of pedigree, "Hard to Be a God" was destined to enter the cinema pantheon one way or another.
I saw the black and white, nearly three hour film over the weekend. And yes, it was clearly made by a skilled director with a clear, uncompromised vision. But good grief, what a vision. German creates a medieval hellscape of putrid misery, full of mud and filth, and then shoves his camera in uncomfortably close so that the awfulness of it is inescapable. For three hours. Anton putters along, being subjected to the onslaught while navigating an almost incoherent plot involving Arkanar's warring factions and a missing doctor. I gather from what I've read about the source material that there's quite a bit of political and social commentary that's been completely lost on the way to the screen. The director seems far more concerned that we get the full visceral impact of the squalor and despair that ensuring that his narrative is comprehensible.
I've never been worn down by a film like this. Though similarly lengthy and stark, Bela Tarr's creeping existential dread and Andrei Tarkovsky's meditative long shots were absorbing and enriching. "Hard to Be a God" just made me increasingly disgusted by the whole experience the longer it went on. I'm glad I didn't see this one in a theater, because the ability to take breaks from the viewing experience was vital. At the same time I can appreciate the shot compositions, the lighting, and what I could see of the art direction under all the rain and excrement. As antagonizing as the film is, there's no denying how artfully all the ghastliness has been presented. So I can see how some critics are making the case that this film lives up to Aleksei German's towering reputation and deserves a place among the Russian cinematic greats. But good grief, I can't imagine many people actually wanting to subject themselves to this film too often.
Wim Wenders' latest documentary, "Salt of the Earth," also contains uncomfortable material and disturbing images. However, it's a far, far more tolerable watch. It's the latest and perhaps the best of the director's profiles of other artists. Here Wenders' subject is Sebastião Salgado, a Brazilian social photographer best known for capturing images of humanity in extreme circumstances - famine victims, refugees, mine workers, and the like. Wenders joins Salgado on one of his globetrotting expeditions, capturing the artist at work while delving into a retrospective of Salgado's long career. The film also touches on his family life and other projects, like Salgado's conservation efforts with the Instituto Terra. "Salt of the Earth" makes great use of Salgado's photographs, but the man himself is the film's best resource, whose lifetime of experiences have shaped a truly remarkable human being.
Wenders' style is similar to that of his fellow New German Cinema alum, Werner Herzog, presenting everything through a very personal lens. Wenders provides some thoughts on Salgado through narration, but he doesn't put nearly as much of himself in the film as Herzog would, preferring to let Salgado speak for himself, especially about his work. Here I should caution that the subject matter is challenging, as Salgado's photographs document human suffering and depravity in great detail. Viewing some sections can be very difficult. However, there is always clear, measured, and thoughtful commentary to keep the horrors in perspective. The final third of the movie, featuring Salgado's work with the natural world, also provides a good counterweight, allowing the film to end on a more hopeful note.
I've seen "Salt of the Earth" referred to as a particularly difficult and harrowing watch, but after "Hard to Be God," it felt like a breeze. Perhaps I'm not intelligent or open-minded enough to appreciate Aleksei German's work the way I appreciate Wim Wenders,' but somehow I feel that both directors got exactly the response out of me that they intended.