Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (a.k.a: Русский ковчег, Russkij Kovcheg – 2002) is described as 300 years of Russian history. It isn’t, really; rather an impressionistic time-warping experiment; a nexus of snippets from highlighted portions of Russia’s complicated past. Yet Sokurov’s Cliff Notes approach to such a vast timeline leaves one wanting, both for more and more clarity as it were – the actors given scant lines of dialogue to recite during this marathon travelogue. The movie would be nothing at all without its gimmick; 87 minutes of continuous meandering with a Steadicam through thirty-three rooms of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage – the famed and expansive Winter Palace of the Tsars. Under Natalya Kochergina and Elena Zhukova’s art direction, the Hermitage is transformed into an opulent waxworks, the museum’s staggering 2.3 million cultural artifacts readily on display and spanning virtually the entire human history of artistic achievement.
Sokurov’s premise is undeniably ambitious. But his execution is rather belabored – history unraveling before our eyes, though not in any cohesive or even chronological order. As the voice of the unseen narrator, reportedly awakening after a mysterious accident to follow ‘the European’ (actually the Marquis de Custine, played by Sergey Dreyden) through the Hermitage’s antechambers, grand halls and lavishly appointed ballrooms, Sokurov grounds his disjointed antiquity in a sort of faux memory box of disheveled snapshots. His incongruously aligned regressions periodically allow de Custine to mingle with the ill-fated aristocracy. But more often de Custine and Sokurov’s omnipotent chronicler pass as spectral creatures unnoticed by these more grand figures from history.
Quickly, the viewer becomes acclimatized; the camera never stationary for a single master shot, the more than 2,000 actors and 3 orchestras on constant standby and maneuvered on cue in front of an eight-man hidden rig, including Sokurov and his cinematographer, Tilman Büttner, the latter finding the experience exhausting. Reportedly, Büttner whispered to his first assistant that he could not go on moments before entering the massive ballroom for the climactic mazurka. Misunderstanding Büttner’s comment, the assistant prodded him through the doors and into this grand edifice jam packed with its myriad of dancers; Büttner somehow finding the strength to manage his 35 lbs. equipment for the last 18 min. To delay the shoot was not an option. Three false starts at the beginning (all occurring within the first ten to fifteen minutes of the movie’s runtime) meant that time itself was of the essence – the Hermitage only agreeing to Sokurov’s shoot inside its hallowed walls for a single day and night.
The Hermitage did allow Sokurov unprecedented access to its rooms and cultural artifacts, also affording the honored luxury to change and/or remove statuary and art to stage his faux history. At times, Russian Ark is brimming with a resplendent visual pomposity, although arguably not dramatic intensity. The extras are impeccably groomed; Maria Grishanova, Lidiya Kryukova, and,Tamara Seferyan’s hand-stitched clothes made expressly for the film are exemplars in costume design. One need not imagine the grandeur of these bygone days. It’s all here, in mindboggling and perverse detail. Some of the handsome jewels worn by the principles are genuine. Even Catherine the Great’s exquisite fine bone China – rarely seen in public – makes its movie debut in a dining hall being prepped for party guests.
If only so much of the action did not take place with Sokurov and Büttner staring at the backs of people’s heads then Russian Ark might have indeed become quite a show. But the camera generally follows as the godlike observer from behind instead of getting ahead of the action; the extras frequently craning their necks or even turning in the general direction of the camera, regrettably never interacting with it. Instead, this formaldehyde-stricken menagerie passes in and out of frame like audio-animatronic figures found inside an E-ticket ride at Disneyland (It’s A Small World, Russian style). Worse, Büttner’s ever-evolving Steadicam tracking shot lacks the intermittent and very necessary pause to allow the audience just a moment or two to take everything in and soak up the atmosphere.
As example: we barely glimpse the Shah of Iran as he apologizes to Nicholas I for the death of Alexander Griboedov – a ravishing sequence staged without maximum impact achieved from any dramatic standpoint. The camera, rather apologetically slinks behind the European, floating past rows of stoic courtiers who remain rigidly nailed down to the floor. Regrettably, stiff visual vignettes like these dominate Russian Ark. Only occasionally does the human element emerge from under these embalmed recreations. The one clearly delineated figure – the essence that keeps Russian Ark from devolving into a singular gigantic montage - is Sergey Dreyden’s portentous Marquis, disseminating snobbish contempt for his resplendent surroundings. Only a haughty, exclusive and self-professed scribe, who spent his own cultured and moneyed lifetime documenting his many travels throughout 19th century Europe, could make such supercilious observations with a straight – if occasionally, grimacing – face.
Entering the palace behind a cackling entourage of military officers and their elegantly appointed ladies en route to the fabulous ball, we rummage through the darkness without our bearings, witnessing Peter the Great (Maksim Sergeyev) physically assaulting one of his generals. This inauspicious debut is followed by an extravagant representation of an opera staged for Catherine the Great (Mariya Kuznetsova) who, after applauding her thespians, rather unceremoniously declares to her guests in the gallery that she has to take a piss. Next we move through a rather curious ‘guided tour’ of the Hermitage’s Italian gallery, the Marquis criticizing Russia for having no artistic merit of its own, but rather stealing its ideas from the Italian masters…and not even the best ones at that. He even comments how the superb reliefs and frescos that surround are reminiscent of the Vatican. Herein, Sokurov is drawing our attention to the acrimonious ongoing relationship between Russia and the rest of Europe; the continent’s collective ostracizing of this vast empire bordering its Northern front made concrete by the Marquis’ various huffy admonishments along the way.
You really have to be boned up on your Russian history to appreciate this irony because Sokurov isn’t about to explain any of it to the first time viewer. Arguably, he doesn’t have to for a European or Russian audience. As we make our way through these cavernous interiors the history lesson continues: an imperial audience with Tsar Nicholas I (Vladimir Baranov) by the Shah of Iran, the Marquis wandering into a dining hall being impeccable prepped for a state dinner to follow. There’s also a fleeting glimpse of idyllic family life featuring Tsar Nicholas II (also Baranov), his daughters draped in diaphanous gowns playfully flitting through the halls with laurels braided into their hair. Seen too are the ceremonial changing of the Palace Guard and museum directors – past and present, playing themselves – whispering their concerns over badly needed repairs required during the reign of Joseph Stalin. In one of the movie’s more ominous vignettes we glimpse a desperate Leningrader laboring over his own coffin in the middle of the 900-day siege of St. Petersburg during World War II.
The elaborate ball that caps off Russian Ark is spectacular beyond all expectation; 2000 extras in period gowns and military finery prancing about as a full orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev strikes up a vibrant mazurka; twice, no less – the encore bringing down the house. Sokurov indulges the eye with one final display of showmanship; the staggering exodus of these gentry down the palace’s winding staircase, Büttner’s camera finally getting in front of the cast as they slowly proceed to the exit. Russian Ark’s penultimate image is foreboding, the camera turning away from this sumptuousness toward a pair of French doors thrown open to the frigid outside; a cruel mist rising off the water with a howling wind, almost appearing to gain the momentum of a tidal wave. The image is, of course, metaphorical for the advancing Communist revolution that decimated this seemingly stable world. One can also reinterpret the finale as the Hermitage itself becoming a sort of ark for Russian history lovingly preserved beyond the ebb and flow of this sea of change.
So much of Russian Ark’s focus is on its technical prowess that its tenets as a tangible historical record seem almost secondary afterthoughts. Strictly from a logistical perspective, Sokurov has achieved a benchmark likely to remain unchallenged. His film is firmly situated at the crossroads between traditional celluloid and digital movie-making. Yet, only periodically does Russian Ark succeed at sweeping the audience into its escapist recreations; the symbolism rather transparent, the sacred mingling with the profane and our de-facto protagonists, the Marquis (but particularly the invisible Sokurov) reduced to providing causal links through their superfluous exchanges/debates on estheticism and politics.
De Custine's most celebrated work, Empire of the Czar: A Journey Through Eternal Russia, does, in fact, inform a good deal of the European’s opinions and comments throughout the film. Yet Sokurov’s premise for Russian Ark as a constant rebirth/re-envisioning of the Russian empire, only briefly glimpsed during moments of its own victories/defeats, informality and public spectacle, is a flawed commemoration of the country’s most resplendent and inglorious chapters; its cumulative essence distilled into more twaddle than saga. What remains then, is the painterly exquisiteness of Tilman Büttner’s camerawork, miraculously achieving - on a literal level - a fascinating critique of the subconscious mindset of this bygone era. The intellectual ‘joys’ of Russian Ark are to be discovered here; not in the impressiveness of the exercise, nor in Sokurov’s laconic bits of dialogue scattered throughout this otherwise strangely silent journey. But the mystery of Russia’s opulent, often tragic, chronicle lies elsewhere, and that’s a shame.
As expected, Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray exhibits noticeable improvements in1080p. Since Russian Ark was shot digitally, the quantum advances in overall image quality come as no surprise. Colors tighten up, though vibrancy still seems a tad wan in spots. Contrast is more striking and skin tones are far more realistic than on the previously issued DVD from Wellspring Media. The shortcomings of early digital recording occasionally flair up – exaggerated noise smoothed out on this Blu-ray to take on the more pleasing aspect of film grain. There is also just a tad more visual information revealed to both the left and right. But the oddity of this release is to be found in its LPCM 2.0 audio, especially since a sonically superior 5.1 surround mix was featured on the DVD. Nevertheless, dialogue and music cues have a discernible separation that is pleasing. The other great sin committed herein is the excision of a comprehensive audio commentary by Jens Meurer, compounded by the absence of some stellar and fairly lengthy interviews. Kino Lorber retains the 45 min. documentary, In One Breath and the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Russian Ark is fascinating viewing.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)