The One about Alexander Sokurov’s “Russian Ark”

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When watching the “Russian Ark”, not only do you come away watching the film and feeling the uniqueness of Sokurov’s masterpiece but also an appreciation for art, culture and a era that is long gone.

In interviews, Alexander Sokurov has talked about making of this film, to showcase Russia as cultured people, to showcase what is possibly the largest art museum in the world that is in Russia but also an understanding of cultures.

In the case of the film, the Marquis who looked down on Russian culture and Sokurov as the unseen person, trying to make sense of the Marquis but having things to say about Russian culture through his film.

Before we discuss the film’s message and story, let’s talk about the technical achievement of the “Russian Ark”.  To create a film that features a 96-minute unbroken tracking shot with no cuts is challenging but Sokurov and his crew took the idea and escalated it to the nth degree by involving anywhere between 1,000-2,000 actors, three orchestras, technicians and set designers, makeup design, costume designers to create the authenticity of an era that is no longer there but also to shoot at the Hermitage which is unthinkable.

Not only does the Hermitage house one of the largest collections of paintings but because Catherine the Great had so many pieces, for this film, they even allowed for some of her pieces to be featured in this film.  It’s obvious that Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky knew how this is a once in a lifetime film as with the Russian government and military, but it all came down to delicate planning.

In fact, cinematographer Tilman Buttner had discussed that during his survey of the museum, he would go seven times a week just to see if it can be done.  But also how he praised the equipment that was built for him to shoot the film that made the film become a reality but also, possibly the language barrier between him and Sokurov of shooting for hours with heavy equipment was taking a toll on his body.  Buttner tried to explain it to Sokurov but the words were lost in translation and as Buttner has said, it was was a good thing because the most elaborate and extravagant scene of the ballroom dance would have never been shot.

The late Roger Ebert once wrote of how the film is a “glorious experience to witness, knowing the technique and understanding how much depends on every moment, we almost hold our breath”… I agree.

How they managed to pull off these amazing shots in a crowded space without running into people or anyone messing up by looking at the camera or tripping on a wire, watching the “Russian Ark” is a magnificent experience and if one has appreciation for the arts, not only are you draw into the film, you are captivated completely.

Yes, it is maddening for some that there are no cuts in the film but as many other filmmakers have created long tracking shots, nothing comes close to what Sokurov and his crew were able to accomplish.

Every actor and orchestra had to hit their mark, lighting had to work effectively, movements had to be natural and costumes, makeup and hair had to look authentic.  This was a magnificent film that we do indeed hold our breath because we are not sure of its result during one’s first time watching the film and by the end of the film, you not only feel you watched one of the greatest technical achievement in modern cinema but also watched a film of absolute magnificence.

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Now to the story, everyone will have their own interpretation of this film.  But having watched it again, without spoiling the ending dialogue between the Marquis and the unseen man, we are aware that we are watching ghosts of the past that live in the Hermitage through various situations of Russian history.

We see Catherine the Great watching the actors of her film but seeing the beauty of the paintings and sculptures that she purchased and is featured at the Hermitage, we see various figures may they be doctors, poets, political leaders, but also a time of the Revolution.

And the question I believe that is posed to the viewer is that during Russian monarchy, during the era of Catherine the Great, she brought nobility to Russia.  During that time, we watch as Russians were elegantly dressed, had a thirst of art, classical music and these ghosts of the pasts continue to live during a time of extravagance.

I am not an erudite in Russian history but I have read that about the uneasiness in Russia during the time the Tsar Nicholas II ordered troops to fire upon peaceful workers in demonstration in St. Petersburg and how these uprisings would eventually lead to the changing of the political landscape that would lead to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and lead to a Civil War.

The monarchy that had ruled Russia since 1547 would end when Ivan the Terrible was officially crowned Czar of all Russia and a new governmental system was founded on Communism.

But without becoming polemic and discussing the characters, we get a hint through the Marquis, that he wants to stay back in time and not move forward because he knows that the era that he just saw, the culture, the extravagance, people who were full of life will now heading towards darker times.

This film makes me think about what else Sokurov was trying to reach out to viewers.  Was it a change of the Russia-then versus the Russia-now that he wants to be part of or is longing for?   As we listen to the unseen character trying to understand the culture around him, he is displaced.  Obviously a Russian not of the era as the others he is seeing before them.  Men that are dancing, women in beautiful gowns, people who were of an era that was no longer there when the unseen character lived in Russia.

Possibly seeing how humanity has evolved and I think even people of today feel the same way.

I’ve often talked about how times are changing as the appreciation of having books, appreciating art and certain finer things of life are becoming more and more distant from the masses.  Yes, there will always be people who will appreciate a good book, who will go to an art museum and stand at a painting for a half hour or people who will listen to classical music and opera but you wonder if Generation Y or the generation that will follow will even care about the past as everyone is more about the future of owning the latest technology and the days of art, appreciation of culture will no longer be about the masses but appreciated by the few.

Overall, “Russian Ark” is a film that is a cinematic achievement thanks to its 96-minute tracking shot but it’s also a unique film that will instantly captivate you from beginning to end.  This is no doubt Alexander Sokurov’s masterpiece and because of its visual message, it is a timeless film now and will forever be relevant many years, decades later.


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Dennis A. Amith