Dancing in the 'Ark'
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark earned a considerable amount of buzz after last year's Cannes Film Festival for its major technical achievement: a single shot lasting 96 minutes without a cut.
Alfred Hitchcock tried a trick like this with his 1948 film Rope, but -- both then and now -- film reels need to be changed after about 20 minutes. And so Hitch cheated with a few "invisible" cuts here and there. Even digital video is dependent on the life of the battery or the memory of the recording device, which in most cases won't last for the length of a feature film.
So Sokurov (Mother and Son) created a special hard drive capable of holding his 96 minutes of footage. He spent seven months preparing his thousands of costumed extras, choreographing their every move to engage with the camera, and then shot the film in less than two hours.
It's a considerable achievement, to be sure. But Russian Ark moves beyond a simple technical exercise and into the realm of greatness. It's a masterpiece on every level. It helps if you know something about Russian history, but even if you don't, Russian Ark exhilarates at the level of pure screen poetry.
As the film begins, an invisible narrator (Sokurov), whose point of view we take on, finds himself suddenly transported back to the early 1700s. No one can see him except for the French Marquis de Custine (Sergey Dreiden), who has himself been transported there from the 19th century. The Marquis was a real person, who, among other things, worked as a travel writer.
Together our two guides enter the Hermitage museum in St. Petersberg, maneuver through 33 rooms, and exit again. They witness great works of art and meet people from both the past and the present, and they bicker over what they've seen from two points of view: the Marquis from a Westerner's outsider view, and the narrator with the hindsight of history.
But again, even if you don't know this stuff, Russian Ark is easy enough to follow. It transfixes us effortlessly as we glide from room to room, looking at stunningly beautiful paintings and architecture. In some scenes, Sokurov tries to play with us, as when a blind woman describes a painting of the Madonna and Child to our guides. And a sojourn into the wrong room gets our heroes reprimanded for treading upon the corpses of World War I.
But even casual observers should be able to pick up references to Anastasia and poet Alexander Pushkin. And Catherine the Great (Mariya Kuznetsova) probably gets more screen time than anyone else besides our narrators.
The final masterstroke comes in the last room in which a great ball takes place -- supposedly the Hermitage's final ball held in 1913. The scene must have utilized hundreds of extras, each moving in a specific pattern. This sight is so dazzling and transcendent that even the narrators stop talking for a while just to watch.
When the ball ends, our narrator joins the hundreds of costumed revelers in descending a great staircase, headed for the exit. We're swept up in the mass of humanity with a mix of sadness and awe.
We should credit the actor Sergey Dreiden for his superb performance as the Marquis. I suppose that thousands (millions?) of stage actors have performed for 96 minutes straight without a cut, and so his achievement probably won't make any history books. But with his pinched costume and his clawed hands clasped behind his back and his amused demeanor, he makes a sturdy and fascinating tour guide. We couldn't have done it without him.
Also cinematographer Tilman Büttner, who operated the steadicam on Run Lola Run, deserves a pat on the back. He must have been there every step of the way, suffering and rejoicing with Sokurov.
But why the gimmick? Couldn't a tour of the Hermitage museum taken place using cuts like a normal film? Well, yes, but the idea of not cutting allows us to feel more a part of the effect. Remember, Russian Ark starts with two time travelers exploring an unfamiliar place and time. By never cutting, never cheating time, we're with them -- literally -- every step of the way.
Russian Ark plays only for one week at the Opera Plaza and then it's gone. Put it at the top of your list of things to see.
The DVD release contains a commentary track by producer Jens Meurer, presumably the only crew member who speaks English. Also with a making-of documentary, interviews and weblinks.
Ten years later, Kino Lorber released a beautiful, impressive Blu-ray edition. It should be noted that this film was shot with video technology that is now ten years old, and some of that may come across as a lack of quality today. Though it's missing the commentary track from the DVD, it still comes with the 43-minute making-of documentary and the trailer.