On December 23rd, 2002, an amazing feat was accomplished in St. Petersburg. The Hermitage, one of the world’s most famous museums, was closed down for one day to allow Alexander Sokurov and a cast of hundreds to shoot a 90-minute film. What makes this an amazing feat is the fact that the film was shot uninterrupted, unedited, and in one single take. Connecting three generations of history in a grand tour of the Hermitage, Sokurov’s “Russian Ark” is a passionate, technical masterpiece of aesthetic beauty. But cutting away the amazing and impressionable imagery, you’re left with a flat, one-dimensional piece devoid of fulfillment and comprehension.
The film is shot in first person, through the eyes of the narrator, namely Alexander Sokurov. Awakened and unsure of where and when he is, the narrator follows a mysterious party into the depths of a cavernous stairwell and into a flourish of colors, sounds, and characters. Of most importance, we are introduced to a quirky French aristocrat known as the Marquis. The Marquis becomes our tour guide on a journey through Russian art and history. Trying to keep up with the evasive Marquis is no easy task. And with each opened door, we are taken from one grandiose moment to the next, one period of time to the next. We experience what Russia was like before the Revolution, after the war, the famine and social rebellion, the historic times of Catherine II and Peter the Great, and even explore life in modern times.
It’s pretty straightforward and simplistic thematically. The point? The Hermitage, like Noah’s Ark, has triumphed over turbulent tides and weathered the strongest of storms, preserving some of history’s greatest achievements in art and life.
“Russian Ark” is a technical masterpiece. Incorporating a cast of nearly 867 members and a crew of 4,500, the film exists as an amazing effort in patience and coordination. Organizing and executing a simple script, but complex cinematography, is director and screenwriter Alexander Sokurov. Sokurov had his cast and crew rehearse the film for nearly six months before turning the camera on. And although shot remarkably in a single take, it was really the third take that stood the test of time. With careful precision, marks were down to mere centimeters, lighting had to be just right, and sound undisturbed. A special cinematography award should go to Tilman Buttner who carried the entire Sony HDW-F900 camera on his shoulder without switching a single time during the 90-minute shoot!
But technical merit aside, I found the film a little dull in parts. Granted, I am very fond of Dostoevsky, Rakhmaninov, Tchaikovsky, and Chekhov. I’ve studied the great paintings of Russian masters like expressionist Wassily Kandinsky, constructionist Liubov Popova, and social realist Raphael Soyer in art history class. But I did not feel any sense that these greats were represented. Instead, the narrator seems more interested in following the Marquis, who is often seen posturing, mugging for the camera, and constantly roaming about than allowing the audience to absorb the art and rejoice in the Hermitage’s magnificence.
Perhaps if I had actually visited the Hermitage, I would have a greater sense for the scope and significance of the film. In an interview about the film, Sokurov said: “that if you spend a minute in front of each painting and sculpture, then, in order to see the entire Hermitage collection, you’d have to be there for three years. Three years? I certainly did not get that sense from the film because it was shot endlessly indoors.
Perhaps if I knew a little more about Russian history, the film would have stood out a little more, maybe even made a little more sense. Catherine II and Peter the Great were easily recognizable historical figures, but I was completely baffled at the banquet and dance scene. Although stylistically majestic, the film’s finale left me dazed and confused – a rather cumbersome piece of hundreds of participants dancing and departing a ballroom in formal procession. The scene was a combination of history and music, detailing a re-enactment of the receiving of ambassadors from the East by Nicholas I. The ambassadors were bringing Nicholas I a message – that the Russian diplomatic mission in Iran had failed, resulting in the death of a “well-known” poet and composer named Alexander Griboyedov. Yet everyone is dancing? Equally confusing in the 1913 ball was the addition of the modern orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater led by the “world famous” maestro Valery Gergiev. The music and costumes are wonderful, but countless scenes like this demonstrate that without knowing the who and the what, you may be left befuddled.
Throughout the film, one dominant question came to mind repeatedly: What if the film wasn’t done in a single take? What if the film was shot without the steady cam, replete with tracking, editing, and special effects? Would this be an interesting movie? Would the images sustain the story and create compelling drama? For me, the answer was a resounding no. While the landscape and hallways are simply divine, there is nothing that resembles continuity or logic. The film toggles from one generation to the next, randomly, like a tour of the Hermitage without a map or interpreter.
Whether in a film like “Mat i Syn” (examining the relationship between a grown man and his terminally ill mother) or the controversial “Moloch” (examining the relationship between Hitler and Eva Braun), Sokurov’s films have a familiar theme: finding the spiritual essence of humanity, no matter how difficult. And this theme is represented here as well. You get a greater sense of appreciation for Russian art and history, a greater sense that despite external social behavior such work can be preserved for future generations. And it fills us with hope, that a greater humanity can be achieved.
“Russian Ark” is a landmark achievement in the technical aspect of film and can be considered a worthwhile hour and a half. The camera glides through the museum effortlessly and flawlessly, seemingly on the wings of a bird. But is a technical triumph sufficient to sustain a full-length motion picture? Without interaction, without dialogue or drama, the film lacks intrigue beyond the first 15 minutes. And after the umpteenth door is opened, you’ll feel like you’re on a class field trip and ready to go to the gift shop. In fact, it almost made me wish I was back in art history class watching a slide show of the Russian greats. Almost.