Monday, June 8, 2015

Ecclesiastes and Hard to be a God

Here's my final paper for my Theology and Film class. It is a critical dialog between Ecclesiastes and Aleksei German's Hard to be a God (2013).




In the creation of a work of art, it is inevitable that the philosophical and theological convictions of the artist inform every movement, every artistic choice, every aspect of the completed work. The creator’s understanding of the world, of humanity and its place therein, of life and its meaningfulness (or not), of God and his existence (or not), etc. both guide her activity and are expressed through it. Consider what Paul Thomas Anderson had to say: “I put my heart—every embarrassing thing that I wanted to say—in ‘Magnolia’” (quoted in Johnston 2004, 73). The artist may not always explicitly communicate her convictions: “I was trying to say something with this film without actually screaming the message” (quoted in ibid., 74). Nevertheless a person—and so a fortiori an artist—cannot help but to act on what she believes is true. These convictions may be present whether intentionally or unintentionally, in the same way that a phrase unthinkingly used in conversation may suggest more than the speaker had initially intended. The consequence of all this is that a work of art may be likened to a speech act: through a film, for example, the filmmaker communicates something about her vision of things to her audience.

Theological or biblical film criticism is possible, therefore, because the Bible, Christian tradition, and theology more generally also have things to say about the world, about humanity, and about God. Biblical film criticism is engaging in a dialog with the artist and her film. As in any conversation, either side has something to learn from the other: a film may provide a parable or example to illuminate some theological or biblical point, or it may raise questions against some received understanding; the Bible and Christian tradition, on the other hand, may provide answers to the artist’s questions which she does not consider, or may correct misunderstandings, in addition to affirming what the film says and does. (Beyond this, God may make special use of a film to present himself to some viewer, just as he might make use of a sunset or a vision or some other turn of providence; in such a case, however, God is using the film as a medium for self-revelation, something for which the artist cannot plan.) Of course, in order for this dialog to be fruitful and positive, the Christian viewer must first experience the film and hear its message before responding. “If one gives answer before listening, it is folly and shame” (Prov 18.13).

Ecclesiastes is one book of the Bible which more than anything else engages in philosophy rather than history, inspired prophecy, or theological argumentation from revelation. For this reason, it makes the perfect dialog partner for filmmakers and works with philosophical concerns. An enigma in the Bible for its unique message (Davis 2000, 159), Ecclesiastes offers a fascinating sort of theistic existentialism: all is vanity and life is meaningless, but it is a gift from God, to be enjoyed while it is still available. This message can be both appreciated and countered, however, and much more needs to be said. In what follows, I will utilize renowned Russian filmmaker Aleksei German’s Hard to be a God (2013; in Russian: Trudno byt bogom), engaging in thematic criticism as well as analyzing the visuals and sounds of the film, in order to present a dialog with the wisdom (or perhaps anti-wisdom) of Qoheleth.


Hard to be a God, based on a novel by the Strugatsky brothers, is about a group of scientists from Earth who have gone to do research on a distant planet called Arkanar, very similar to earth in a number of ways but with a twist: it contains human-like creatures who seem to be following the same evolutionary path that humans took, but they are behind by about 800 years. Stuck in the miseries of the Middle Ages, intellectual and social progress is slow coming because poets, thinkers, and the rest are all killed by the rulers. These scientists were sent to study the progression of the planet and to attempt to facilitate the birth of an extraterrestrial Renaissance, but they are not permitted to interfere with the politics and society of the planet by using their advanced knowledge and technology, no matter the horrors and inhumanities they witness. Mythology develops about their origins, and many revere the scientists as sons of gods and barons, but Don Rumata, the protagonist of the film, finds his circumstances exhausting and miserable. Hence the title of the film: it is hard to be a god! The greatest weakness of the film lies is its very poor narration: to someone who has not read the novel before, it would not at all be clear what the plotline of the film is supposed to be, where the story is going, what each character is doing, and so on. In any case, this problem can be resolved by reading a basic synopsis of the novel beforehand, and experiencing the film on its own terms. German’s efforts were apparently focused on recreating the filth and grime of the medieval context, which he accomplishes stupendously in this case. What is important in Hard to be a God is not plot so much as atmosphere: the seemingly inescapable and ubiquitous discomfort, misery, and violence of this particular stage of human development.

German accomplishes in a number of ways. To begin, the set design of the movie is very impressive. The movie was filmed in the Czech Republic, while some interior shots were filmed in Moscow. A medieval context is expertly recreated as the characters of the film wander through dusty, crowded castles with animal carcasses and meats hanging from the ceiling, or else slog through perpetually muddy villages, passing by hovels and outhouses and deformed villagers and monastic orders singing psalms in what seems to be permanent fog and smoke. The film is shot in black and white mostly using a handheld camera which almost always sticks close to Rumata as he meanders through the claustrophobic environment, packed with servants, slaves, villagers, soldiers, monks, and animals. The main actors and numerous extras also contribute to the visceral effect of the film through their truly medieval manners: in what seems like every scene, someone is spitting indoors, or urinating, or forcibly expelling mucus from his nose, sometimes just onto his upper lip only to clean himself by hand. This intolerably uncomfortable environment is experienced almost first-hand by the viewer thanks to the unconventional, unorthodox cinematographical style German has adopted: some elements of the environment (mostly extras) of a particular scene are almost always obstructing the line of sight from the camera to the characters of interest, giving the film the realistic, involved feel of a documentary or reportage. In a real sense, German’s film is an extended exercise in provoking the visceral eye, in Boorstin’s terms (Boorstin 1995, 105ff.). As one reviewer noted, though it is initially fascinating and curious, “soon the ugliness wears on you… Over time, like Rumata, we’d rather be anywhere else” (Marsh 2014).


Yet the exercise is not done for its own sake, but in service of the philosophical and theological question of the film. German has the viewer go “wading through shit” (Bitel 2014) in order to ask a question: what relation does God have to this world full of mud, blood, shit, spit, and piss? At an earlier point of the film, Rumata asks a doctor whom he is escorting what he would ask for, if he could petition God for anything and receive it. The doctor responds that he would rather God leave the world alone, so that humans could be left to their own devices. Rumata won’t accept this, however, because the strong will overtake the weak and abuse them, much as he has been witnessing throughout his time on Arkanar. If there is a punishment of the strong, however, so that conditions are equalized, it will turn out over time that the previously weak become the new abusers; sin is intrinsic to all humans. But in response to the suggestion that God ought then to destroy everyone, he says, “It’s easy to destroy. The lice-ridden, the sick, and even the children. My heart is full of pity. I can’t do that.” Don Rumata wants to bring Arkana to a Renaissance, to liberate it from the squalor and mire in which it seems stuck. To do this, he must resist against an order known as the Grays, who are set on exterminating all the intellectuals and poets and possible catalysts for widespread social change. Towards the end of the film, after a bloody battle with some Grays in which Rumata has finally succumbed to killing his opponents, he says to another scientist: “Hey, if you write about me, and you’ll probably have to, write that it’s hard to be a God!” To desire the good for the suffering and ignorant, for the miserable and the backwards, and yet to be unable to drag human persons forward because of the inviolable freedom of their will—this is the difficulty of life as God.

So is God hopeless in the face of a wayward creation? One reviewer notes that, though Rumata’s desire is for a Renaissance on Arkanar, “German’s trick here is to suggest it may not happen – that instead the savagery of the Middle Ages will last forever … [because] the Renaissance was a fluke. Cruelty and barbarism are the default modes of existence” (Marsh 2014). Rumata does not consider the possibility at all that God might actually create and orchestrate such a world intentionally. If God were able, he would make things far different from what they actually are. Thus, Rumata prays at one point in the film, just as he is about to kill a large number of persons: “God, if you exist, stop me.” Perhaps the alternative is rather that God does not exist at all, and that Arkarnar is simply one corner of the hell that is the entire universe. Certainly it would seem strange that God, whose “mercy endures forever” (Ps 136.1 and passim), should create such a world as Arkanar!

Hard to be a God thus makes a theological argument, though it also says something about being a human—namely, “it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with” (Eccl 1.13). German had been interested in shooting Hard to be a God more or less for the entirety of his career as a filmmaker—since the publication of the source novel in 1964 (Craig 2014). It is evidently a work whose message resonated deeply with him. (He died before the completion of the film, during post-production.) His questions about the misery and suffering and ignorance in the world are shared by Qoheleth, and the two may have much to appreciate about each other.


Qoheleth, too, is struck by the senselessness of life under the sun. Much like Don Rumata on Arkanar, he finds that “All things are wearisome; more than one can express” (1.8), and in many respects, Qoheleth and Rumata are the same. Just as Qoheleth is the “son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1.1), so also Don Rumata is something of a king over the people of his village, in which he is revered as the son of a god. He lives in his castle, eats sumptuous meals, plays earthly jazz music on his space-clarinet, and has a number of servants waiting on him at all times (cf. 2.7). Likewise, they are controversial in the eyes of the religious figures of their times. Rumata constantly pranks and harasses the monastic orders in his villages, at one point flinging a pouch filled with the excrement of a donkey at a group of monks as they sing. Qoheleth, for his own part, turns the traditional wisdom of the Jewish proverbs on its heads by affirming that “in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow” (1.18; Davis 2000, 174-176). Yet Rumata’s experiences as a god among men are unsatisfying, just as were Qoheleth’s privileges (2.1-26). Both Rumata and Qoheleth perceive the amorality of the world around them: “in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well” (3.16). Rumata, like Qoheleth, cries out: “Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors was power—with no one to comfort them” (4.1). In spite of their similarities, however, it would seem that Rumata and Qoheleth also have different reactions to the travails of their respective worlds.

In the face of an absurd, amoral, unjust world, Qoheleth’s advice is to enjoy the simple pleasures of life so long as they are available: “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil” (2.24; cf. also 3.13, 5.18, 8.15, 9.7). This is his response to various forms of vanity in the world: to the problem of leaving the products of one’s labors to potentially unwise successors; to the general meaninglessness of human toils on earth; to the wasted efforts of those who work without enjoying their labor’s results; to the injustice and unfairness in the well treatment of the unrighteous as well as the persecution of the righteous; and to the annihilation of the human person (as well as her wishes, hopes, dreams, loves and hates) at death. Though Qoheleth supposes that judgment may eventually come upon the wicked, “for [God] has appointed a time for every matter, and for every work” (3.17), yet it would seem that “the wise die just like fools” (2.16) and in the end those who have never been born are better off than both the living and the dead (4.2-3). It would be a mistake to moralize Qoheleth’s picture of the world when all of his observations contradict such a reading. The judgment that comes upon the wicked is their death, not some postmortem eschatological judgment, but death brings the end of the righteous person as well as the wicked, and there is no hope of a return: “never again will [the dead] have any share in all that happens under the sun” (9.6). Even their memory will be forgotten before long, which tragedy brings Qoheleth to hate life itself (2.16-17). Death comes to all: therefore eat and drink, enjoy your work, and spend time with a partner if possible (4.9-12; 9.9). That is the lesson to be learned from Qoheleth.

From the perspective of German’s Hard to be a God, however, this quasi-Epicurean enjoyment of life while it lasts is not enough. Rumata has a greater concern for changing the concrete circumstances of his constituents than Qoheleth apparently does; the latter is far more reserved and withdrawn, unconcerned in any profound way to better the world. Admittedly Qoheleth does give the injunction: “Send your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will get it back” (11.1), which Davis interprets as “commending acts of charity” (2000, 219). But this commendation is a single verse in a long work which says very little about the moral life, and there is no impression given in Ecclesiastes that the world will ever change for the better. On the contrary: “What has been is what will be, and what has been is what will be done” (1.9). German’s fear that the Renaissance was a fluke, that barbarism is true human nature and the inescapable condition of the citizens of Arkanar, is apparently Qoheleth’s plain and simple truth.

Why should God have created the world in this way? Rumata wants to change the state of Arkanar, to bring a Renaissance, because he knows that life can be better than they currently experience it. There is a genuine difference between existence in the modern world and life in the backwards medieval age in which his constituents are trapped; for him, what has happened is not always what will be, because there can be genuine progress. Out of pity for the lice-ridden, the sick, and even children, he wants to do what he can to make things better, to lift up Arkanar out of the muck and mire. The only obstacle is the inviolability of human freedom, which in the end seems more like an obstinate slavery to ignorance and extremist conservatism. This is the dilemma: either it is hard to be a God, or else there is no God at all and life is hell. For Qoheleth, however, God has made the world this way “so that all should stand in awe before him” (3.14). God works against human pride by giving the same end to kings as well as to swine: “God is testing them to show that they are but animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals” (3.18-19). It would seem God intentionally made things unintelligible: “God has made [the day of prosperity as well as the day of adversity] so that mortals may not find out anything that will come after them” (7.14). In the end it would seem reality is unknowable: “…I said, ‘I will be wise,’ but it was far from me. That which is, is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?” (7.23-24). Indeed, perhaps the most difficult of Qoheleth’s musings contemplates God’s disposition towards the world: “the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God; whether it is love or hate one does not know. Everything that confronts them is vanity, since the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked” (9.1-2). Even the wise and the righteous cannot know whether God loves them or hates them. In the end, as for “all the work of God … no one can find out what is happening under the sun” (8.17).

Qoheleth’s philosophizing about God makes his theism very unstable. Suppose German poses the question: what difference would it make to our experience of the world, our hopes and our dreams, the purpose of our life, if God did not exist? Qoheleth has no answer to give, since in many ways, in his experience it is already as if God does not exist. He writes on the one hand about the eventual judgment of God (11.9), but on the other he notes that, “Because sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the human heart is fully set to do evil” (8.11). Moreover the hope of God’s judgment of the wicked seems trivialized, since the same judgment—death itself—will come upon the righteous. Qoheleth apparently affirms the Genesis creation account and its picture of God as good when he writes, “God has long ago approved what you do” (9.7). He is referring to the pronouncement of God at the creation of the world: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen 1.31). But the goodness of God, here affirmed obliquely through a reference to the creation myth, is compromised by much else of what Qoheleth writes, especially the eminently anti-prophetic and anti-wisdom denial that the wise and righteous can know whether God loves or hates them. Why would the good God create a world like this? Rumata might further bring the following criticism against Qoheleth: your advice that a person eat and drink and enjoy the life she has while she has it is impossible to live for far too many. How can you “eat and drink and be merry” (Eccl 8.15) in famine, in war, in pestilence, in disease, and in persecution? What of the poet killed in the first scenes of Hard to be a God by being held face-down in the refuse under an outhouse? This is advice for the privileged; it may seem plausible to those with the means available to live that sort of life, but for those who suffer, it may be better to die than to go on living (cf. 4.2). Moreover, a person whose concern is to bring the world forward, whose goal is to work for progress, cannot accept that “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done” (1.9). No change, no progress, no hope is possible on such a view of things.

In summary, then, Don Rumata and Qoheleth are both similar and radically dissimilar characters. Hard to be a God shares the dim perception of the conditions of life which Ecclesiastes so profoundly and repeatedly laments, but raises moral and theological difficulties to which Qoheleth has no easy answer. Why should we grant that life is the gift of God (5.19), if it turns out to be so miserable a gift even we wouldn’t give it? If life is just “eat, drink, and be merry” (8.15), what difference would it make if God did not exist? If history is inexorably cyclical and repetitive, why bother to work for any good, and what hope is there for any progress? Perhaps the best that Qoheleth can say is: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going” (9.10).



BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bitel, Anton. London Film Festival 2014: Hard To Be A God. October 8, 2014. http://www.filmlandempire.com/2014/10/london-film-festival-2014-hard-to-be-god.html (accessed May 18, 2015).

Boorstin, Jon. Making Movies Work: Thinking Like a Filmmaker. Los Angeles: Sillman-James Press, 1995.

Davis, Ellen F. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000.

Johnston, Robert K. Useless Beauty: Ecclesiastes through the Lens of Contemporary Film. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2004.

Marsh, Calum. Hard to be a God: Brilliant Russian Film Imagines Humanity Without a Renaissance. February 26, 2014. http://www.villagevoice.com/2014-02-26/film/hard-to-be-god-rotterdam-aleksei-german/full/ (accessed May 18, 2015).

Skinner, Craig. Why Aleksei German's Hard To Be A God is worth the wait. April 2, 2014. http://www.filmdivider.com/173/why-aleksei-germans-hard-to-be-a-god-is-worth-the-wait/ (accessed May 18, 2015).