Introduction to the screening of Hard to be a God
Thursday, September 21, 2017


The writer Simon Morrissey in a DHg catalogue essay from about seventeen years ago claims to have met the artist Paul Thek in Death Valley some four years after Thek had died. As they part Thek tells him, “A great artist helps people to love each other.” I’ve no idea if this something Thek said but it certainly fits with my understanding of him. It is after all, hard to love people, or to even like them at times. This is something that the protagonist of this film, Don Rumata, struggles with.

Simone Weil tried all her life to identify with those who were despised, or overlooked, those who were enduring the greatest hardship in society. A highly educated intellectual and educator, an activist and political writer of note, in 1934 and 35 she worked in car manufacturing plants in France to experience life on the factory floor. One worker told her that after a year or so she would become immune to the suffering… She was after some time so broken by her experiences she realised that when she was not being brutalized she felt she was being granted a special favour. Being free from pain, bullying, fear and discomfort was somehow a state of grace that she hardly deserved. Weil believed by the end of her experience that, “Oppression that is clearly inexorable and invincible does not give rise to revolt but to submission”.

(If you haven’t seen my show at the DHg it might be puzzling to hear these names put together so I should mention that I have painted portraits of Weil, Thek, as well as Tony Soprano and Giordano Bruno which feature prominently in the exhibition.)

Giordano Bruno held the heretical belief that the universe was immense, infinite and divine and that all people, all matter in the universe necessarily partook of this divinity. Everyone, including the devil, would be saved. Jesus was not more special than anyone else. Bruno was killed for his belief in the commonality of existence and as I understand it, an ideal of existential unity, that was not hierarchical or exclusionary, a unity not only with one another but with the entire universe.

A famous line about Thek’s beliefs and work describes freedom, as above all else, freedom from identification. Weil refused to identify as a feminist, nor it seems, though Jewish herself, even to prioritize the terrible plight of the Jewish people in WW2, because she believed so vehemently in trying, through suffering, to identify with everyone.

At times it is as difficult for us as a species to negotiate our similarities, as it is to manage our perceived differences. Don Rumata is an outsider, but he is, I suspect, just as disturbed by what he has in common with the people around him as he is appalled by them.

Hard to be a God is set on a world where any inkling of intellectual aspiration, any learning is being remorselessly crushed. It is by no means the only work of science fiction to feature a backlash against enlightenment values… Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is of course one that springs to mind. A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M Miller Jr is another. The novel by the Strugatsky brothers that this film is based on is rather more rollicking and plot driven than the film we are going to see. But the repression of learning is a theme that probably should not be dealt with lightly. We are be living in a time, where intellectualism, and expertise in general, is increasingly perceived by a portion of society as elitist, and is met with suspicion and outright hostility.

The themes in Hard to be a God, such as there are themes, are familiar to us all. There is an autocrat and his militia. There is also a militarized religious faction. Ideology inevitably trumps decency. Amongst them is this outsider, a scientist by training, from another world. He and his colleagues are there to observe and unobtrusively protect or fan the flames of a nascent enlightenment in this brutal world, one that we would deem essentially as ‘medieval’.

It’s two years since I saw this. I recall finding it a difficult watch at times. In some ways the story is almost negligible to the experience of seeing it. If you do not carefully read a few subtitles at the beginning, you might have no clue as to what is going on and it would still be utterly compelling.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film that stayed with me is that the world portrayed is profoundly un-visual. Communication seems to take place primarily through proximity - through touch and smell. That a filmmaker can represent this, and haul the audience into a truly horrible proximity with the world on the screen is I think remarkable. There is flatness to this world that seems fitting to a place where perspective, or objectivity of any kind, or even the aspiration to objectivity, seems to be inconceivable.

I suspect that usually when artists in any genre break with convention, initially it tells us something more about the possibilities for an art form, than offers more information about reality. Those insights, I think, manifest or emerge more slowly or in hindsight. But occasionally when you see something that you have not seen before some aspect of reality is instantly made visible. It’s a rare achievement.

I am not sure if anything innovative in terms of film making was done in order to achieve the all over, relentless, physicality of Hard to be a God. I don’t know enough about film. But I know I have not seen anything like it. In a way, the absence of space, of depth, of sightlines, put me in mind of a completely different kind of flatness. The all over-ness of certain films by Bresson, featuring emotionally drained performers in their affectless world. So I wonder if there is something about not being caught up in the conviction or the actingness of the acting or the storiness of a story that allows a kind of unusual access to a filmed world and irrespective of how strange or alienating, grotesque or even ridiculous it is, you are implicated and held by its reality.

I’m genuinely nervous that this won’t hold up to my memory of it. But the impact was such that I could not pass up the chance to see it again. I hope the next 2 hours and 57 minutes don’t leave you feeling cheated of a bit of your life. And I’ll finish now with a quote from Tony Soprano, who could, I think, do well in the Kingdom of Arkanar.

“You are born to this shit. You are what you are.”

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Image credits:

1. Still from Hard to be a God, 2013, dir. Aleksei German, 177 minutes, black and white. 
2. Isabel Nolan, Paul Thek at the Catacombs, 2017, Water based oil paint on canvas, 80 x 60 cm
3. Isabel Nolan, “Every separation is a link”, Simone Weil, 2017, Water based oil paint on canvas, 80 x 50 cm
4. Isabel Nolan, Tony Soprano at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, 2017, Water based oil paint on canvas, 70 x 50 cm
5. Isabel Nolan, “There is no object which doth not terminate in another”, Giordano Bruno, 2017, Water based oil paint on canvas, 70 x 50 cm
6. Isabel Nolan, “You are born to this shit”, 2017, Water based oil paint on canvas, 40 x 30 cm

Images 2 - 6 Courtesy of the artist and Kerlin Gallery, Dublin. Photographs by Denis Mortell.