Hard to be a God?
Soviet Sci-Fi and the Filmmakers' Imagination
Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky transformed Polish author Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris into a great film. Lem wasn’t the only science-fiction writer published in the East Bloc, nor was he the only SF author from the Soviet era whose work was turned into a movie.
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1964 novel, Hard to be a God, was first filmed by Germany’s Peter Fleischman. The 1989 version is remarkable for starring the noted director Werner Herzog. More recently, in 2013, a Russian version of Hard to be a God surfaced. Directed by Aleksei German, it was the final film by a rule-breaking filmmaker from the Soviet period who clashed frequently with censors and made movies with great difficulty under the old system.
Chicago Review Press has republished Hard to be a God in a new English translation. The setting is familiar from many similar science-fiction stories from the English-speaking world; an observer from a future Earth is sent to a planet whose inhabitants lived in a medieval society. Like the “Star Trek” crew, the observers are not supposed to interfere with the development of alien cultures, but sometimes things happen.
On the surface, there was nothing in the novel objectionable by the standards of Soviet censors. The planet where the observer-protagonist is sent is a brutal place and seems to confirm the Marxist-Leninist injunction that “progress” is inevitably cruel but necessary as humanity claws its way to Utopia. But the reactionary rulers of this world can also be seen as representatives of the totalitarian mindset, hanging anyone who stands in the way of their notions of a well-ordered society. The new translation by Olena Bormashenko is a quick, fun read.