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Russian Ark

One of the most thrilling cinema experiences imaginable – a ride through the waters of history, aboard Russian Ark.

What began as a recommendation from a friend, and was reinforced by the ability to use such as fodder for a class assignment, resulted in one of the most thrilling cinema experiences imaginable – a ride through the waters of history, aboard Russian Ark. Covering a 300-year span of Russian history, Russian Ark takes an approach to filmmaking that one might assume has been tried by numerous film visionaries, yet likely had not previously found so significant a subject. The entire film is shot in one take, over an hour and thirty minutes of continuous motion in a style that makes time both irrelevant and yet central.

What makes the technique more than flash for Director Aleksandr Sokurov is the awe-inspiring content of the film, balanced with the surreal imagery of three centuries of Russian culture. Art, actors, orchestras, architecture, and fashion fuse together with commentary that is enlightening, humorous, and boldly opinionated. The foremost significance of this film is the seemingly endless gala it portrays, simultaneous to its uncommon take on Russian history. The method of filming is not necessarily the first detail to draw the viewer’s attention, but it is certainly one of the first. The absence of scene breaks and camera fadeouts works over time, for one does not realize what is not there until the genius of nonstop motion becomes fully understood. The camera seems infallible as it winds through various rooms and halls - a theatre, balcony, a banquet room, art galleries, corridors, and, finally, even a snow-covered exterior. Each scene arguably reaches aesthetical sublimity, and one begins to feel, with the exception of a cramped staircase early on, that ceilings are lifted to the atmosphere. One might think of similar styles of camerawork in other films, but what others can maintain for a scene, Russian Ark maintains for its entirety.

Sokurov seems to recognize the importance of sight and sound, as the viewer is nearly overwhelmed by uncommon visual experiences, yet still guided smoothly through the coordination of music and commentary. The cameraman mumbles both to himself and the viewer with sporadic frequency, in a way that invokes European documentaries. His proclamations, due to their subjective spirit, engage the viewer with opinion and wit. As the film opens, he wonders (while he wanders) why no one can see him.

Enter Man-in-Black (for he seems to have no name), full of observations, lessons, and wit of his own; one who can see the cameraman, and makes his presence known to the viewer. He begins to lead the movements of the camera, drifting from one room to the next, through dancing crowds or unpopulated galleries to admire the art. At one point he says he is disoriented, knowing not what country he is in, nor what language he is speaking. At another, he sniffs the fresh paint from a canvas and determines the painting to be European. No reticence to his observations, he makes plenty of other claims. The composer must be German, he reasons, if one hears good music. Or is it the cameraman who makes the assertion, for later Man-in-black asks, what is Germany? Another time Man-in-Black makes assurances that the orchestra musicians must be European, while the cameraman argues they are in fact Russian.

Back and forth go the comments between cameraman and Man-in-black as they wander through various periods of Russia’s last few centuries, all brought to beautiful onscreen realization by ballroom dancing and theatre plays. Their comments discuss alternating views of Russian history and the role European culture played to help shape it. The 18th Century is described as a time of “genius and manners.” Viewers are offered the view that Peter the Great might just as well have been called Peter the Tyrant, and told that Asians honor their tyrants... St. Petersburg was to take the place of the Vatican... Much arguing occurred at the 1815 Congress of Vienna over the fate of sculpture... Is Russia a republic? Who knows... Interrogations... Question as to whether one is a sympathizer... Amidst these goings-on, Man-in-Black pleads for Russia not to inherit Europe’s mistakes. He is in some ways a Romanticist, and tells the young girl Anastasia to remain a child. “Young girls are little birds,” he admires.

The film delivers all these subjects in a dizzying array of somewhat disjointed tidbits, for otherwise, one would not likely experience 300 years of Russia in only an hour and a half on the davenport. The actors and musicians make the spin through time believable, for the vivid colors of fashions evolve through the different phases of history. Men wear various military dress uniforms, and ladies float in aristocrat gowns that heed little to practical function. They walk the long, languid halls of paintings and whispers. They are proud to attend a publishing party in one instance, while elsewhere they dance as couples, the all-male orchestra playing festive musical equations.

Never before have I seen a film of such magnitude. The man holding the camera deserves no fewer accolades than the musicians and actors who passed through his field of vision. I decided after my first viewing that he was indeed the most valuable contribution to the whole, though no part could be excluded. The original artistry of Russian Ark, its vision, its purpose, leaves nothing wanting. After viewing other masterpieces in cinema I have still been able to consider possible improvements that could be made, but that is not so with this film. Perhaps my favorite line from the film was when Man-in-Black, considering the notion of progress and the future, responds, “Forward? ... No, I’m staying. There’s nothing over there.” I found this to be the perfect quip on the importance of Russia’s history - and history in general.

Afterword – After further research I discovered Russian Ark was filmed at the Hermitage and based on the travel memoirs of the french Marquis de Custine, titled Letters from Russia (original title La Russie en 1839). Many of the opinions in his writings apparently emerge as dialogue in the film through the on-screen ghost of the Marquis (Man-in-Black).

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