Like a ghost with a digital camera, an unidentified filmmaker finds himself in the Hermitage in St Petersburg in the early 1700s. As he glides through the elaborate palace admiring the fabulous works of art, he meets The Marquis (Sergey Dreiden) the only figure who can see or communicate with him; he turns out to be a cynical French diplomat (surprised at his own sudden ability to speak Russian). As the two men take a physical and occasionally time-jumping tour of the imperial court of old Russia, they are witnesses to a myriad examples of life under the Tsars. They also exchange often wryly acidic opinions (often about Russia’s cultural place in or out of Europe) as they observe a unique world of art and history unfolding through the centuries, until the last Great Royal Ball of 1913, on the eve of the revolution.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
There’s no editor credit because there isn’t an editor. Sokurov shot this film in a single take on a Sony HD camera (specially fitted with a hard disk recording facility to enable more than the usual 46 minutes of shooting time). But that’s only the technical gee whizz of it; the film is remarkable for its technical achievements, sure, but only in service of its creative, cinematic merits – which are legion. This totally original film is a work of daring and brilliance; ignoring the usual parameters and conventions of cinema, Sokurov virtually turns himself into the camera, in a way that includes the audience. His intention is not to be clever and digital: he wants to simplify the process and make his film more real for us. In this he succeeds brilliantly, as we travel through place and time – several times, in fact – absolutely glued to the screen. The history of Russia pops up through scenes throughout the palace, from the pomp of a lavish court event to the pedestrians of today exploring the gallery of rich and rare artworks. The deceptively casual filmmaking style hides immense logistics and exceptional craftwork (in all departments, from costumes and make up to sets, sound and special lighting). Tilman Buttner’s steadicam glides smoothly through the restored Hermitage as Sokurov brings to life not one but two Empresses (Catherines I and the Great) and hundreds of other players on the stage of Russian history. Russian Ark (‘ark’ as in the repository of samples of Russia’s great art and history) is at once revealing and mysterious about its subject matter, and remarkable for creating a point of view yet keeping the central ‘character’ completely invisible. This is a film in which character does not play a central role; The Marquis is a commentator, while the camera plays the role of our eyes. Indeed, the commentary adds a dimension to the film which engages us mentally, about Russia’s often love-hate relationship with Europe. And the cumulative effect of seamless, unedited footage in real time is palpable. So if I’ve made it sound like a worthy documentary, I’ve failed; this is a vibrant and fascinating work that has much more than curiosity value – but it has that, too, by the ton.
Review by Jake Wilson:
In general, the films and videos I’ve seen by Aleksandr Sokurov are meditative, largely plotless works that seem forever haunted by ghosts of stories past. Russian Ark both continues and breaks from this pattern – there’s no narrative in the conventional sense, yet with its army of extras and ceaselessly unrolling display of opulent costumes, paintings, sculpture and architecture, it’s a lavish historical spectacular to rival Gangs Of New York. There’s no denying the film’s amazing technical achievement as a single 90-minute take choreographed with sinuous grace and military precision, culminating in the ecstatic ball sequence where the camera literally becomes one of the dancers. Yet it’s harder to define just how this unique form relates to the film’s subject-matter and its particular, eccentric melancholy. On the one hand the long-take format gives us the sensation, almost as in a 3D IMAX film, of moving through a concrete space defined by clear physical boundaries (as when the camera hovers outside a window but is unable to ‘cut’ through the glass). Yet in another sense the absence of editing prevents us from getting our bearings – as in a dream we’re carried smoothly from one scene to another yet the transitions swiftly fall out of memory since there can be no looking back. This allows the film to maintain a productive tension between continuity (in ‘real’ space and time) and discontinuity (in its fictional shifts between epochs) suggesting the simultaneous presence and absence of the past, while the same theme emerges through the many enigmatic references to artworks and historical events, which serve as challenges to the audience’s own fallible cultural memory. If this makes the film sound overly difficult and precious, I should add that it’s also surprisingly funny, mainly thanks to Sergei Dreiden’s performance as the 19th century nobleman returning from the grave to act as our unofficial tour guide (via a running dialogue with Sokurov’s whispered voiceover). Twitchy and imperious, stalking the Hermitage corridors like Groucho with his arms knotted behind his back, the Marquis may be a ‘dead soul’ – but as a character he’s more alive than anyone in most of Sokurov’s films, and his bewildered or sardonic reactions to this out-of-time journey effectively counterpoint the film's generally solemn attitude to art.
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RUSSIAN ARK (G)
CAST: Sergey Dreiden, Leonid Mozgovoy, Mikhail Piotrovsky, David Giorgobiani, Alexander Chaban, Lev Yeliselev, Oleg Khemelnitsky, Alla Osipenko
PRODUCER: Andrey Deryabin, Jens Maurer, Karsten Stoter
DIRECTOR: Alexander Sokurov
SCRIPT: Anatoly Nikiforov, Alexander Sokurov
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Tilman Buttner
MUSIC: Sergey Yevtunshenko
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Yelena Zhukova, Natalia Kochergina
RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Potential Films
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: Sydney & Melbourne: May 1, 2003; ACT June 4, 2003