Russkiy kovcheg (2002)

RUSSIAN ARK (Russkij kovcheg)

(director/writer: Alexander Sokurov; screenwriters: Boris Khaimsky/Anatoli Nikiforov; cinematographer: Tilman Büttner; editors: Stefan Ciupek/Sergei Ivanov/Betina Kuntzsch; music: Sergei Yevtushenko; cast: Mariya Kuznetsova (Catherine The Great), Leonid Mozgovoy (The Spy), Sergei Dreiden (The Marquis), Mikhail Piotrovsky (Himself), David Giorgobiani (Orbeli), Boris Piotrovsky (Alexander Chaban), Lev Yeliseyev (Himself), Oleg Khmelnitsky (Himself); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Andrey Deryabin/Jens Meurer/Karsten Stoter; Wellspring Media; 2002-Russia/in Russian with English subtitles)

“A truly unique cinematic experience.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Russian Ark is shot in a single, unedited Steadicam shot of 96-minutes while moving through 33 rooms in the world’s largest museum, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The talented German cinematographer Tilman Büttner took the longest continuous take ever in a movie. Yes. It’s a gimmick. But the lyrical story is so masterfully conceived and the groundbreaking visuals so spellbinding, that the gimmick can be overlooked in favor of the film’s overall sublime effect. I felt as if I was transported back in a dreamlike state to the 19th century and became part of the bizarre scenario of visiting the Hermitage along with a party of Russian nobles and officers. I felt slightly dizzy with joy realizing I was not taken on the usual art museum tour, but was welcomed as an observer into how it must have felt to be caught up in the frenzy of being in the company of the privileged class.

The film is transferred from high-definition digital video to a 35mm print, where some picture quality is lost in its theatrical release but not enough to matter. It’s directed by Tarkovsky protégé Alexsandr Sokurov (“Taurus“/”Mother and Son“), and features a cast of close to two thousand costumed actors and extras plus three live orchestras. The actors rehearsed for several months and the Hermitage was restored to give it the look the filmmaker wanted (there were reportedly two failed takes before it was completed in one swooping motion without editing, as the Hermitage was procured for only one day). “Ark” is a stunning homage to St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum, built in the 1700s. It also holds the Winter Palace (the former home to the tsars).

The film crosses three centuries of tsarist Russia, while Sokurov remains invisible as the narrator engaged in an ongoing dialogue with an on-screen cynical and boorish 19th-century French diplomat dressed out of place in black and known as the Marquis (Sergei Dreiden). Sokurov has identified him as the Marquis de Custine (his sarcastic observations in the Empire Of The Czar was published in 1839), and he becomes the unlikely tour guide taking us through his time-traveling journey. He rubs shoulders at the Hermitage with such dignitaries as Peter the Great (beating one of his generals) and Catherine the Great (searching for the loo in order to do number one). All the guests are acting natural without them aware of the camera’s presence.

The film opens as the offscreen Sokurov says “I open my eyes and I see nothing.” Some kind of miracle left him viewing the past image of smartly uniformed Russian officers escorting gorgeously costumed women out of their carriages and making their way through falling snow in search of the grand ball held in the Hermitage.

This ghost-like story is part pageant, museum tour and historical reflection, as it moves through the elegant corridors and the richness of the Hermitage’s art collection and fine architecture and through the seat of where the history of Russia has been preserved. The frizzy-haired Marquis is the only one to acknowledge the filmmaker’s presence and continually baits him by taking swipes at the Russian culture. He bumps into Pushkin and says of the legendary national poet that he read him in French and doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. The Marquis dismisses the Russian artist as imitative of the Italian Raphael and other great European artists, because his government doesn’t trust him to be creative and original.

There are many eye-dazzling moments of great paintings displayed and further analyzed (such as the Rubens and Van Dyck), overheard whispered conversations, an apology from the grandson and representatives of the Shah to Nicholas I for the killing of Russian diplomats (carried out in the pomp of a state function), and there are the love intrigues between young dashing officers over one lady they both fancy. But it all culminates in the height of pageantry at the great royal ball held in the Hermitage under Tsar Nicholas 11 in 1913 just before the Bolshevic Revolution. To the music of Glinka played by a live orchestra, the mazurkas are danced by the many enthusiastic nobles. They are oblivious that their end is coming so soon. The filmmaker is wryly commenting on how Russia dug its own grave and can’t get out of it. Though the scenario might seem to wax nostalgic, the sense is more of pity that Russia’s greatness and rich cultural past was only reserved for the pleasure of the nobles while the masses were treated with cruelty. Sokurov’s aesthetic aim might be to film in the polar opposite style of Sergei Eisentein’s 1927 proletarian masterpiece October, a spectacle commissioned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the 1917 revolution and noted for its sharp editing techniques and symbolic montage shots. Sokurov’s aims also seem darker, as he brings back the past but is too frightened to contemplate what the future holds. He contemplates what price must be paid for freedom, as he recalls while defending St. Peterburg from the Germans during WW11 a million lives were lost.

The result is a mind-boggling adventure through the richness of Russian history and art, where the filmmaker painted sketches of what it was like for those in power and lets the viewer fill in the ominous blank spaces he left in the shadows. It’s a daring way of filmmaking, telling a true story as if it were a dream and subject to all sorts of interpretations. Some might find it pretentious, not fulfilling, or just plain boring. I found it overwhelming, an innovative film that brought to life its penetrating story. A truly unique cinematic experience.


REVIEWED ON 5/10/2003 GRADE: A +