At 2:30pm on the December 23, 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 the impending revolution; and hundreds of dancers waltzing 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 the cynical 19th Century French diplomat, Marquis de Custine (Sergei Dreiden), with whom he engages in a slightly fractious and ironic dispute over the Marquis’ disdainful opinion of Russia and Russian art, while he (the unseen Russian narrator—Sokurov himself) reflects on his country’s uneasy relationship with its past, discussing the tensions that have always existed between Russia and Europe. This device offers the viewer the opportunity of considering identity, place and belonging, one of many intriguing asides that run in tandem with the main focus of the film: the celebration of the Hermitage as not only one of the great museums of the world, but 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 the notion has not only diminished in value, but when the future is increasingly under threat; 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 a greater humanity, that encapsulates our most cherished hope for the future at a time when virtually everything is commodified, politicised, and confused, a point Sokurov makes stronger by book-ending the film with a warning where he draws a parallel between the hundreds of figures from the past who parade before us like ghosts moving steadily towards an uncertain future and the possibility of our own potential demise, hinted at in the opening moments when we are told 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 have been snippets of life-passing-before-the-eyes of a mortally wounded Russia, stricken by some irreversible man-made act of destruction or neglect perhaps, and it is with this ominous closing image that Russian Ark comes to its sombre conclusion.
Yes, well—enough of that. I wouldn’t want such a try-hard idea to be construed as a derogatory comment on this excellent film. Breathtaking in scale, Russian Ark is a magnificent piece of cinema, although some have found it tedious. It’s hard to empathise with such a response, but I will concede that this is probably not a good ‘date flick’. If you’re after a good yarn you’re better off going to… well, just about anything, because Russian Ark is not a typical movie—even as ‘art-house’ films go. There is a script, there are actors, the music and photography are very fine, there is spectacle, drama, romance, humour, hope, despair, fact, fiction, wonder and awe—just about everything usually associated with cinema, except there isn’t a single cut and there ain’t no story! Well, not in a conventional sense. So, why shoot a film in one continuous take? Well, Sokurov has never been shy of long-takes, and while the idea of shooting a film in one-shot had crossed his mind earlier, the prospect of making one as an end in itself held little interest – until the concept of a film about time set within the splendour of the Heritage Museum occurred to him, a film in which impressions from the past are linked in one continuous movement—or as Sokurov poetically described it, “in one breath.”
Once a Tsar’s palace, the cultural icon of The Hermitage Museum is an ideal symbol of Russia’s relationship with history. The tetchy conversation between the two principal characters is more complex than it seems, in fact the choice of Marquis de Custine as our ‘guide’ was far from accidental. 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. “The love Russia has for 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, or what Sokurov calls, “the art of the knife.” The implicit violence of this description is apt given the often-brutal propagandistic juxtapositions of early Soviet filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin. But there were others, such as Alexander Dovzhenko, who sought the continuity of the image. It’s tempting to speculate that Dovzhenko’s rejection of these relatively aggressive theories may have had a political dimension to it, just as the use of the long-take in Russian cinema may have. At a time when the average shot length in movies has never been shorter, one could easily view the uninterrupted image as not just an aesthetic choice but a political one, and one might even be tempted to expand the idea a little further to suggest that our choices as viewers (whether we frequent multiplex movies or not, for example) could also have a political dimension—or not.
One could be accused of reading too much into Sokurov’s intentions to suggest that his cinema is a plea for politically responsible viewing choices, but even at a cursory glance one must admit that his oeuvre is rigorously non-commercial. With the relative success of Mother and Son (1997), Russian Ark and The Sun (2005), Sokurov’s profile (or dare I say, his ‘commercial cachet’) has never been higher—on the festival circuit at least. Still, as intriguing as his latest film Alexandra (2007) is, I simply can’t see it furthering his commercial potential. Sokurov, it seems, is likely to always be true to his muse. To be honest, the first time I saw Russian Ark (a lavish celebration of Russian culture seen solely from the viewpoint of the upper-class) I had mixed feelings, but the exclusivity of this rarefied clique has a dark tinge to it. As the powerful and privileged descend the grand stairway at the end of the Royal Ball, they proceed from the safety of the ‘Ark’ towards an unknown future, oblivious to the impending Revolution. The DVD cover-art has the museum being swallowed by a huge tidal wave, and as we gaze upon the final apocalyptic image (recalling the opening words of the narrator telling us how people were trying to protect themselves before everything went black), Sokurov’s subtle warning slowly sinks in. Whether Russian Ark as a revolutionary new direction for cinema or not, this remarkable film is, at the very least, 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.