I thought I would take a brief break from medieval movies to talk about one of the most astonishing films I’ve ever seen, Russian Ark (2002, dir. Alexander Sokurov, Russian with subtitles). The film is, and I’m not exaggerating, unique. Consequently, it’s hard to describe or explain. In terms of conventional plot, it doesn’t have one. The film’s unseen narrator (voiced by Sokurov) wanders through the Russian Winter Palace in St. Petersburg (part of the Hermitage museum), which was the official residence of the Tzars from 1732 to 1917. It is implied, though never directly stated, that the narrator is the ghost of a man who died in some accident. He is unsure of why he is there, but he immediately meets another apparent ghost, referred to in the credits simply as “the European” (Sergei Dreiden), who is based on the real-life Marquis de Custine, a 19th century French aristocrat who paid a visit to Russia and published an important memoir of the trip and discussion of Russian culture in 1839.
The two men walk through the Winter Palace, encountering different moments in the building’s history in different rooms, though not in any clear order. They see Peter the Great with one of his generals, Nicholas I conducting diplomacy, Catherine the Great watching theater and looking for a toilet, and Nicholas II with his family. The film ends with a grand ball that took place just prior to World War I.
In between these encounters, the two men discuss Russian history. A particular theme of their conversation is whether Russia is part of Europe or something outside it. The European is initially skeptical about Russia’s culture, but gradually finds himself impressed by it; by the end of the film, he concedes that Russia may be part of Europe after all.
A second, more subtle, theme is the role of the Winter Palace in Russian history. The historical vignettes remind us of some of the important (and less important) moments in the Palace’s history. It also offers the chance to see some of the museum’s considerable treasures (the Hermitage reportedly has the largest collection of paintings in the world), and the film ends with a vision of the Palace as a literal ark, floating on an endless sea, preserving Russian culture the way that Noah’s ark preserved humanity. So rather than being a film about specific moments in Russian history, the film is truly an extended discussion about Russian history itself; what is Russia? what role does history play in Russian culture? What role does Russian culture play in history? The movie explores the irony of Russian history, celebrating the royal family and the imperial cultural that will be wiped away in 1917. The shadow of Josef Stalin hangs over the film, but is only indirectly referred to.
Integral to the film’s message was the way it was produced. Sokurov got permission to film in 33 rooms of the Winter Palace, with the restriction that all the filming had to be done in a single day. So rather than filming the film in a conventional manner, with individual scenes shot out of order and then assembled together, Sokurov undertook one of the most ambitious feats in the history of cinema. He filmed the entire 96-minute film in one continuous take, with the principle photographer wearing a steady-cam and walking a route through the Winter Palace, accompanied by sound recorders and other technicians. Each room had a cast waiting to perform as the camera came into that room.
It was a project that required meticulous planning and the rehearsal of more than 2000 actors and set crew (as well as 3 separate orchestras), including choreographing the camera’s journey through the spaces and the movements of the cast around the camera. In some cases they had to re-dress a set after the camera had passed through it, because the camera was going to come back through that room. One crew member had the duty of holding the cinematographer’s belt to make sure he didn’t stumble. The cinematographer (Tillman Buttner) said it was a grueling piece of work because of the considerable weight of the steady-cam, and by the time he got to the grand ball scene at the end, he was afraid that he was going to collapse from exhaustion. The first two takes failed for technical reasons, but they were able to succeed on their third and last possible take.
The result is the longest continuous shot in film history, the only major film with a single take, and a movie unlike any I have ever seen. The sets, art, and costumes are truly gorgeous. The film’s atmosphere is dreamy; there is no explanation of who the narrator is, why he is there, or why he is seeing what he sees. And as I’ve noted, the film does not have any plot in the conventional sense. But neither does history, so in that sense, the film is more about what history actually is than any other movie I’ve ever seen. If you’re a fan of cinema history, or familiar with Russian history, or interested in what history is on an abstract level, I highly recommend Russian Ark. It will challenge you, it will puzzle you, and it may well astonish you. The whole film appears to be available on youtube, but here’s a trailer for it.
Want to Know More?
Russian Arkis available through Amazon. There are a couple different editions, but this is the cheapest.
If you want to know more about the Hermitage Museum, you could look at The Hermitage: 250 Masterworkswhich is a coffee-table book about the museum’s important collection. Or you could read about its fascinating history in The Hermitage: The Biography of a Great Museum