director Aleksei German
It was Glenn Kinney’s review on RogerEbert.com that turned me on to this film. And images like these:
that kept pulling at my curiosity and consciousness.
Frankly, you could pull stills from almost any moment of the film and have striking, amazing images. It’s been compared to Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a sprawling, mad, jam-packed vision of hell straight from an alternate universe dark ages. And that is just exactly what it is.
At nearly three hours, it’s a long day’s sojourn into hellish night, full of phlegm, puke, viscera, excrement, torment, disease, deformity and death.
It’s based on a Russian/Soviet science fiction novel from the 1960’s of the same name by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the same writers from whom Andrei Tarkovsky drew the remarkable Stalker (1979). It’s science fiction unlike most science fiction one readily conceives. It’s set on a parallel Earth, one mired in an endless Dark Age, visited by scientists from modern/future Earth, undercover to study the ways of this bleak, grotesque world. They are not allowed to interfere with the killing of intellectuals and artists, not allowed to try to propel the world forward toward enlightenment. They merely observe, bemused, living as somewhat elite roles as noblemen descended from gods.
It’s the difficulty of being a god and not interfering with your creations, watching it all go further down the muck-strewn slope into further degradations of hell. It is, of course, a critique of society, one that punishes and exterminates the ones who would raise humanity from the muck rather than perpetuate the most sickening of worlds. Apropos of Russia? Apropos many places, I would say.
Aleksei German worked on this film for decades, actively so for the last decade. He didn’t even get to see the film released. His son and his wife helped shepherd the film through post-production and completion.
Kinney refers to it as a “capital-G Great Film”. I am not one to quibble that point. I’ve been sitting with it for several days now, trying to fully get my head around the experience and what I have to offer on this movie. It’s still percolating within me. It will likely continue to percolate, bubbling like the primordial muck in the film, for some time.