Russian Ark (U)

Oct 18, 2006
Cranbrook Film Society

I am writing on the 1st July, the 90th anniversary of the commencement of the Battle of the Somme. I mention this not only because commemoration is useless if it does not shape hearts and minds every day but because Sokurov is a serious maker of films about history as well as about art.

His most well known film is Moloch about Eva and Adolf Hitler. And over Russian Ark, in many ways a wonderful and mysterious film, there is a looming sense of historical catastrophe. At one point one of the literally thousands of characters turns to a friend and the camera overhears her say, “Look at them, the flower of the Russian Officer class” and the sumptuousness of the mise-en-scene seems to mean we are intended to share her admiration.

The impending disaster is, of course, as we see Czar Nicholas and his family at table in an already sepulchral white room that affectingly foreshadows their murders, the Revolution of 1917 that “severed” Russia from Europe. But to understand the anguish that accompanies the beauty of the film we might remember that much of that Russian officer class was, in fact, killed in the fields of Poland, at the same time as our young men were dying at the Somme fighting other Europeans. Two million Russian and two million German soldiers were killed and millions more were maimed before the Bolsheviks put an end to the war in the East, but not to the killing.

Much of the discussion of the film, naturally I suppose, focuses on what an extraordinary technical achievement it is. Wanting to make a ninety-minute film in one single continuous travelling shot in the Hermitage museum, the authorities in St. Petersburg gave Sokurov permission to shoot for just four hours on the 23rd December 2001. As you will see, with a huge cast, a large proportion of whom have dialogue, the need to preserve a very particular artistic mood and vision, and two years of preparation on the line it is high-wire filmmaking. New high-definition digital technology, with no need to change tapes or reels, made it possible but Sokurov, and his Director of Photography and Steadicam operator Tilmann Buttner, who had previously won an award for his work on the similarly kinetic Run Lola Run, had the courage to do it.

The film takes the form of a walk through the museum from the point of view of the filmmaker who we hear but do not see. He is accompanied by a Marquis, a nineteenth century French diplomat. Sokurov abandons the normal edited nature of cinematic time, with its ellipses, because he wants us to see time differently. In Sokuruv’s own words; “Time never stops. The epoch of Peter the Great hasn’t stopped yet. You can always imagine you are in this time because the branch of this time is still growing”.

The single shot emphasises our continuity with the past, or rather the continuity that Sokurov feels is essential to preserve the best traditions of Christian Europe. In the “ark” the director emphasises the art of the “old masters”, especially Rembrandt and El Greco, he avoids more modern art such as that of Matisse, who is well represented in the Hermitage. He sees the paintings in mystical terms, miraculous creations touched still by the living presence of their creator. We meet a blind woman who somehow knows the paintings intimately and another who talks in a state of serene bliss to the paintings while the Marquis rapturously sniffs them. The Marquis kneels before El Greco’s portraits of St Peter and St Paul as if it were part of an altar and berates a young man, in ominous terms, for not knowing his Bible. As Sokurov himself says; “…the painting in the Hermitage is so fundamental it is beyond any discussion”.

This idea of High Art as a transcendent pseudo-religious refuge from the contemporary world is not new, of course, and it is unashamedly elitist. Sokurov states clearly he is looking for understanding from what he calls a “cultured” audience. His taking art and the past seriously is welcome given the unremitting triviality and venality of much contemporary culture but when his awe before the art of the “old masters” seems to be transferred to the Imperial Court then I, at least, start feeling less comfortable. In one eerie scene the Marquis stumbles on a back room where a poor and deranged man is making his coffin. It is a way of presenting the siege of Leningrad and that there was a war between Germany and Russia is explained to the obviously befuddled Marquis. It is not referred to as the second war between the two nations of the twentieth century and the film as a whole seems to have “forgotten” the first.

In the final scenes, an elegiac mood invites us to mourn the passing of the court and the Czar’s Imperial court was beautiful but Europe’s competing Emperors had already turned inwards in a blood soaked savage “war to end all wars” years before the Bolsheviks brought the curtain down.

Aleksandr Sokurov | Russia | 2002 | 96 minutes | U