The opening shot lingers on a strange graffiti drawing of a humanoid figure on a broken brick wall. Then, as the camera pans from the wall around to a snow-covered street beyond, a male voice speaks in Russian:
I have nobody left in this dying town. I never thought I would come back here. Here, waiting for the Apocalypse, the world is descending into chaos. They say the enraged face of God will appear in the sky. The face that you are not allowed to see. Those who dare to look will be burned alive. I, personally, do not believe this. But a lot of strange things are happening around here.
Subtle references back to this ominous prophecy will appear periodically throughout the film in the form of strange faces—such as in the opening shot of the graffiti drawing—before the “enraged face of God” really does appear in a blood-red night sky.
As the camera pans away from brick wall to the street beyond, a man in a hat, a girl in a yellow jacket, and a woman—each carrying a small suitcase or bag—slowly walk into view. It is a desolate scene, dark and cold, with odd neon signs (an arrow, a plus sign, an eye, and a squiggle) that are constantly flickering. The unreliability of electricity and electric lights will be a motif of the film, perhaps reflecting a failure of technology in this dystopian alternative reality, but, in any case, certainly affecting the ambience and soundscape of the film. The brightness of electric light is consistently accompanied by the familiar electric sounds of buzzing, humming, and crackling.
Suddenly all of the neon signs turn off, leaving the family in the dark, and a bright ball of light with a tail of smoke streaks across the pitch-black sky—accompanied by a rumbling mechanical sound that is not unlike that of an airplane. This phenomenon has been described as a “red-tailed comet” in promotional material for the film, but it seems even more unnatural and menacing an occurrence than that. The family watches its progress across the night sky with clear unease. When the “comet” is no longer visible, their slow, single-file progress through the dark town resumes. The ponderous pace at which characters walk, here and throughout the film, is the tempo of this world. This strange phenomenon would occur several times throughout the film.
Soon they reach their destination: an abandoned school classroom. There are candles and small pits of fire around the otherwise dark room, rain drips in through a hole in the roof at one corner, and the wind blasts through an open window. It is a stark contrast to the well-dressed, albeit despondent, members of this family, who apparently intend to spend the night here. The situation is made even more miserable by the sudden arrival of three policemen, who—in the film’s first dialogue and the first use of Kazakh language—harass the Man in the Hat, demanding to know who gave him permission to be there. In an exchange typical for Kazakhstan, one half of the conversation is in Kazakh and the other in Russian, both languages understood by both parties. (Here, the policemen speak Kazakh, the Man in the Hat speaks Russian.) They hustle him outside to “talk,” but he returns with blood on his face. The girl in the yellow jacket, Alisya—she is the only character in the film to be named—watches silently, her expression attentive but unsurprised, and backs into a corner until the hole in the roof is directly above her. Barely visible in the small patch of night sky is an incredibly bright orb; logically it must be the moon, but its luminance is reminiscent of the “comet.” As the rain turns to snow, the girl looks up with mild surprise and raises her hand to catch a few flakes with the universally recognizable delight of a child in snow.
The film’s young director, Adilkhan Erzhanov, has said that this film “should be understandable to people of different regions, different societies” (Anon. 2018). In many ways, it is a film with messages that many different peoples should be able to relate to: the sense that we live in an age of social, political, and ecological catastrophe, of moral and spiritual bankruptcy, of corruption and degraded human rights, of senseless violence and undefined but pervasive fear. The comet—or missile, or whatever it is—is a clear symbol that the apocalypse is nigh, even if the voiceover at the beginning of the film had not made that clear. The basic and possibly binary elements of water and fire, which are omnipresent throughout the film, evoke the genres of folklore and myth. Corrupt and hostile law enforcement may be just as relatable to certain audiences in the United States as they are to Kazakhstani and other post-Soviet audiences.
Other elements of the film, however, are more unique to Kazakhstan. In addition to the power dynamics reflected in Kazakh versus Russian speech, an episode of the film occurs in a traditional Kazakh yurt, where a mother tends to her sick son. When the camera pans upward, we see another hole in the “ceiling”—like the hole above Alisya in the classroom—and in the patch of night sky, we can see constellations of stars. However, in this case, the missing part of the structure is the tunduk, a circular piece of wood with three crisscrossing laths at the pinnacle of a yurt. Passed down through the generations, the tunduk is a powerful symbol in Kazakh (and Kyrgyz) culture; it symbolizes unity between generations, between different tribes, between earth and cosmos. The tunduk is itself an opening, and it would have been possible to see the night sky through it. The decision to remove this symbolically—and structurally—important piece from the yurt, therefore, is a clear message to Kazakh audiences about the existential horror of this place. The episode is immediately followed by a scene in which, in the background, the wooden frame of a yurt—with tunduk intact—is on fire...
The film also explores the tension between reality and art. The Man in the Hat and Alisya leave the classroom to search for work as “extras” on a television show being filmed in town. The director explains to the Man in the Hat that he will be asked a series of questions from school to test his general knowledge; if he gives a wrong answer, “there will be an explosion.” But he is told not to worry, “there is nothing dangerous, it’s just paint, confetti” and that the paint is “easy to clean up.” The director’s nonchalance, however, is undermined by a man, apparently another “extra,” stumbling across the set with his clothes in disarray and red paint (or real blood?) smeared across his face. The set consists of a stage with two podiums, behind which two men stand in absurd marionette-like postures, openmouthed grins frozen on their faces. The director wears a huge mask (note that this is another representation of a face). The “audience” appears to consist mainly of cardboard cutouts of human figures in various poses, some with photographs of actual faces pasted on them, but interspersed throughout the cutouts are three or so actual people, who are just as motionless as the cardboard. They are distinguishable as real, living people mainly by the fact that they are in color, whereas the cardboard figures are black and white.
Throughout this scene at the television show set there is a constant beeping. A close up of the Man’s torso finally reveals the source of this sound: a bomb has been strapped to his chest. This will cause the “explosion” of paint and confetti, should he answer a question incorrectly. The director notices, however, that it is not one of their props: it is a real bomb. It cannot be turned off, and it cannot be removed. The prop bomb turns out to be very real, and this has very real consequences on the Man’s life. This tension between reality and art is also reflected in the people wearing costumes, who occasionally appear throughout the film—it is never made clear whether these are actors for the television show, or whether they are just a part of the reality of this strange world. Are those statues on strings real in this world? Or are they part of the television show? Is that a real gun or a prop gun? Is that red paint, or is it blood? Fireworks or bombs?
When the director explains to the police that, somehow, the prop bomb is a real one, they once again hustle the Man in the Hat away, this time all the way to the police headquarters. The Man is informed that the bomb cannot be removed until he gets a signature from an imam on a form, confirming that he is not a terrorist or a member of extremist religious organizations; that is, that he is not a suicide bomber in real life. The rest of the film follows the Man in the Hat as he attempts to get the necessary signature. The imam tells him that he does not have the authority in times of “quarantine” to sign the form, and that he needs the approval of the imam’s superior. The imam’s superior says that he cannot sign it, because an “organizer” should sign it, and he passes the buck back to the imam. Suddenly the imam makes an impassioned speech:
I don’t remember the way to go. When we were young everything was clear. Where our home is. Where our mother is. Where to come back to at night. Are you my brother? Are you my brother? My brother?
He receives no answers and walks off-screen. A gun shot causes some plaster to fall off the wall, which reveals an old, scratched painting of Mary and baby Jesus. It closely resembles the famous medieval Byzantine icon, Our Lady of Vladimir, painted in the twelfth century; it is one of the most venerated icons in Russian Orthodoxy. In it, the gaze of Mary, the intercessor, is directed outward, toward the parishioner, her eyes full of pain for the suffering she knows lies in store for her child, but also for the suffering of all humankind. The direction of Mary’s gaze, therefore, is significant, and—significantly—it has been modified in the film: she is looking directly at her baby, not out to the rest of humankind. It suggests that, in this world, humankind has lost its mediator with God, there is no one to appeal to a vengeful God on our behalf.
This image of mother and child is repeated in the film when, on at least two separate occasions, a very young woman is seen holding an infant. Once or twice these young mothers glance up, but, for the most part, their attention (and their sympathy) is devoted only to the baby in their arms. The primary purpose of these scenes, with young mothers who appear only once, and do not interact with anyone in the film, seems to be to remind the viewer of the modified icon painted on the wall in the room of the imam’s superior.
The Man in the Hat walks on through the winter night, without his daughter, toward a tiny house that radiates warm light. Inside the house, a woman asks her little boy, who is busily scribbling something in a notebook, seated in front of a malfunctioning TV, why Icarus flew up to look God in his face. The little boy ignores her, and she answers her own question: “Maybe he was tired of being afraid. Because God is not just goodness and justice. God is rules. Punishment. Power. Fear. Icarus rose to the sky not to be afraid anymore. When the time comes,” she tells her son, “don’t hide like the others. Look Him in the face.” With these instructions, the woman leaves the house, and the Man in the Hat opens the door to stare at the little boy, who does not seem to notice him. Then the Man walks around to the back of the house to peer in through a window. After the imam’s pained monologue about his mother and finding his way home, this episode—in which the Man in the Hat can only look, but not enter, be heard, or be seen—comes across as a memory. The little boy scribbling in his notebook is the Man in the Hat as a child, and the woman is his mother. Her words, therefore, may be a reproach for the grown man, who is certainly hiding “like the others.” His own daughter curses him for his silent subservience—after he says nothing to stop a policeman from raping her.
And, in fact, it is the men in the film who need to be reproached: throughout the film, they are the ones who look away, close their eyes, and even go so far as to wear blindfolds. The women, meanwhile, are looking. They do not cover their eyes. When a face framed in flickering orange flames inexplicably appears in the sky, Alisya is bravely facing it, even as the back of her jacket seems to catch fire. Meanwhile, a group of men, including the chief security officer, the TV show director, and the Man in the Hat, huddle together in fear, pass out weapons, and tie strips of cloth around their heads to cover their eyes. There is a woman in a strange costume, who had appeared at TV show set earlier, and who may be the mother of the young son in the little house (the Man in the Hat as a child). Like the mother, this woman has also her hair up in two buns. For quite some time, she peers at the huddled group of blinded men. The Man in the Hat is the only one to see her; he seems frightened but also mesmerized.
Toward the end of the film, the chief security officer—who has been going increasingly insane—rages in Kazakh: “The age of sense is over. The others are just talking rubbish. Politicians, philosophers, writers, and leaders. They are all useless. There is no sense in God. God is an explosion.” He switches to Russian: “An explosion... An explosion.” Then he switches back to Kazakh: “Do you understand? We’re waiting for an explosion. Idiot! There is no God! There is no God! God is Truth! But there is no Truth!” His repeated emphasis on an “explosion” certainly recalls the bomb that is still strapped to the Man in the Hat’s chest. But the word he uses for explosion both in Kazakh (zharylys) and in Russian (vzryv) are the words used for the “Big Bang” theory (zhoiqyn zharylys, bol’shoi vzryv). It is an explosion of apocalypse and, perhaps, rebirth—the explosive beginning of a new universe.
Ultimately, the film seems to suggest that the problem is not God’s vengeance, but the Truth that God represents. When the men cover their eyes at the approach of God’s face in the sky, they are hiding from the Truth of their own sins and evilness and lies. The men are afraid of this Truth, whereas (for some reason) the women are not. In a penultimate scene where the men are absurdly stumbling around with blindfolds on, the light an eerie red as the face of God spreads across the entire sky, the women sit calmly, eyes open. After several minutes, the Man in the Hat finally removes his blindfold and slowly turns to confront the enraged face of God in the red night sky. This dramatic moment cuts to the final scene of the film. The Man in the Hat is back together with Alisya and the woman (presumably her mother) in the abandoned classroom. The family is asleep, sitting close to one another on a school bench. The bomb is gone.
Familiar sounds from our everyday life are incorporated into the film’s otherworldly soundscape: a stirring spoon rhythmically clinks against a glass, footsteps crunch in the snow, water drips, fire crackles, clocks tick, and young mothers hum tunelessly to their fussy babies. In one scene, a door swaying back and forth in the wind creaks so loudly that it makes conversation impossible; similarly, earlier in the film, the noisy sound of workers sawing, hammering, and welding to construct the set of the television show swells as if to envelop the scene. Heavy drifting fog is nearly omnipresent throughout the film, and vague shapes will constantly appear and disappear. It is often unclear what exactly you are seeing, much less its significance. Shots in the film are generally quite long, almost uncomfortably so. When a sound (footsteps, knocking, coughing) happens off-camera, the natural desire is to shift your attention to the sound’s source, to see who or what it was. Repeatedly, however, the eye of the camera lingers where it was, instead of immediately cutting to show us the source of the sound. The effect is to train the viewer’s gaze to stay stiller, to not look away. After all, the film’s moral is to confront the evil around us with our eyes open, ready to speak and to fight, to dare to look. The Night God might be a bit over the top as a phantasmagoric film-parable, but many of its scenes—both visually and aurally—are strangely beautiful and compelling.
The film, which was shot at Kazakhfilm with funding from the Ministry of Culture and Sports of the Republic of Kazakhstan, premiered at the 40th Moscow International Film Festival (19-26 April 2018).