Russian Ark

December 5, 2008

Alexandr Sokurov, 2002


At 2:30pm on the 23rd of December 2001, Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov started shooting a 96-minute feature film in one continuous take, tracking through 36 rooms of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg with the help of approximately 2000 actors, extras, musicians (including three orchestras), and technicians (notably cameraman Tilman Büttner, whose feat of endurance was nothing short of Herculean), to make a film that crosses four centuries and re-enacts various events that took place in and around the palace: Peter the Great whipping his General; Catherine the Great looking for a place to relieve herself during the rehearsal of a play; the family of the last Tsar at their dining-table, oblivious to impending revolution; and hundreds of waltzing aristocrats at the last Great Ball of 1913, all seen through the eyes of a modern-day Russian who, invisible to everyone (including the viewer), suddenly finds himself out of time in a dream-like saunter through the splendid corridors and salons of the museum with Marquis de Custine (Sergei Dreiden), a cynical 19th Century French diplomat with whom he engages in a slightly fractious and ironic dispute over the latter’s disdainful opinion of Russia and Russian art, while he (the unseen Russian narrator – Sokurov himself) reflects on the tension that has always existed between Russia and Europe, and his country’s uneasy relationship with its own past, along with a broader consideration of ‘identity, place and belonging’, just a few of many intriguing asides that run in tandem with the main focus of the film: a celebration of the Hermitage as not only one of the great museums of the world, but as a treasure house that stands as a testament to the buoyancy of the human spirit, a living entity that veritably breathes history and culture, a safe-haven from the storm, a beacon reminding us of tradition at a time when such notions are diminished in value, and the only museum in the world (according to Sokurov) in which life and art are inseparable, a place where fine art still inspires belief in humanitarian principles, a symbol of hope that stands in opposition to forces that attempt to commodify everything, a point Sokurov makes stronger by book-ending the film with a warning that draws a parallel between the hundreds of figures from the past who parade before us like ghosts moving steadily towards an uncertain future and our own potential demise, hinted at in the opening moments when we hear that an ‘accident’ has occurred, an idea returned to with added emphasis when the film comes to rest on a final apocalyptic image that suggests that the preceding 90-minutes was a depiction of a mortally wounded Earth, stricken by some irreversible man-made act of destruction or neglect, an ominous image that brings RUSSIAN ARK to a sombre conclusion.


I wouldn’t want the above try-hard summary to be construed as a derogatory comment on such an excellent film. Breathtaking in scale, Russian Ark is magnificent cinema. Sokurov has never been shy of long-takes, and while shooting a film in one-shot (without a single cut) was an idea he’d toyed with previously, doing it as an end in itself held little interest for him until the idea of a film about time set within the splendour of the Heritage Museum occurred to him, where impressions from the past are presented in one continuous movement (“in one breath” as he poetically put it) to suggest an unbroken link between the events of the past and present day.


Once a Tsar's palace, the cultural icon of The Hermitage Museum is a potent symbol of Russia’s relationship with history. The tetchy conversation between the two principal characters is more complex than it might at first seem, in fact the choice of Marquis de Custine as ‘the guide’ was no accident. In his day, de Custine shunned aristocratic society in favour of artistic and literary circles, but he also wrote a controversial book about the mismanagement of Russian rule. Sokurov’s ongoing debate with de Custine reflects Russia’s perpetually strained relationship with Europe. “Russia’s love of Europe” Sokurov said, “has never been reciprocated”.


It’s also interesting to note that a film that completely eschews editing should come from a culture renowned for its theories of montage, what Sokurov calls “the art of the knife”. The implicit violence of this description is apt given the propagandistic thrust of early Soviet films by the likes of Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin, but there were others, such as Alexander Dovzhenko, who sought editorial continuity. It’s tempting to speculate that Dovzhenko’s rejection of the confrontational theories of his contemporaries may have had political (as well as artistic and philosophical) dimensions to it, just as the long-take in Russian cinema may have.


Given that the average shot length in popular movies has never been shorter, one could easily view the uninterrupted image as a political choice as much as an aesthetic one, and one might be tempted to expand the idea further to suggest that our choices as viewers (at the multiplex or art house) are equally political – wether we know it or not.


Russian Ark can be enjoyed as a lavish celebration of art and culture, but it’s also critical of indifference. As the powerful and privileged descend the grand stairway at the end of the Royal Ball, they move from the relative safety of the ‘Ark’ towards an unknown future, oblivious to the impending Revolution. The poster-art shows the museum being swallowed by a huge tidal wave, and as we contemplate the final apocalyptic image and recall the opening words of the narrator telling us how people were trying to protect themselves before everything went black, the film’s subtle warning sinks in. Russian Ark is a cautionary reminder of the value of culture and heritage at a time of considerable global uncertainty. By taking us back to our collective past, Sokurov shares his darkest fears for our future. 


Originally published in The Lumiere Reader



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