starring Sergei Dontsov, Mariya Kuznetsova, Leonid Mozgovoy, David Giorgobiani
screenplay by Boris Khaimsky & Anatoli Nikiforov & Svetlana Proskurina & Alexander Sokurov
directed by Alexander Sokurov
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover Russian Ark is a film that hoists its middle finger high against the cultural practices of nearly a hundred years. Implicitly appalled by the twin forgettings of communist and free-market logic, director Alexander Sokurov retaliates by erecting a monument to the proceeding three centuries of image-making--one that marks the entrance to a crypt perhaps, as Sokurov knows that time is running out on its preservation. Surely there's a heaping dose of snobbery in his approach, and a whole lot of wilful obscurity as well, but his expression of his thesis is so passionate and his technical execution is so seamless and beautiful that I could have forgiven him almost anything.
"I open my eyes, and see nothing."
This is the line that begins Russian Ark, as the film's unseen narrator is essentially born into the world of Russia's Hermitage art museum. His subjective camera floats through the heavily-costumed aristocrats as they hustle into the former Winter Palace, and eventually begins following the Marquis de Custard, a 19th-century French aristocrat who authored a book on the history of Russia. Custard is withering on the subject of Russian culture (too dependant on copies of foreigners, says he), but as they wander through the museum we see the various time periods that are contained within. On offer is Peter the Great flogging an officer and Catherine the Great searching frantically for a pot in which to piss; eccentric and/or ignorant museum-goers mis/apprehending paintings in the museum; various diplomatic and social functions dressed in gorgeous finery.
As we see these opulent and ignominious sights, we take a trip through the evaporating fortress of culture that the museum represents. Sokurov quite rightly sees the art within as prophets without honour--so much water has gone under the cultural bridge in the past century of Russian and world cultural history that their immense achievements are in danger of vanishing into irrelevance and obscurity. His resurrection of the people and places for whom these objects meant something is an attempt to place a historical force-field around them, to escape the horrors of the present and protect the meanings that even gallery-goers no longer comprehend. He knows it's a doomed gesture--after all, he ends the film with the final Winter Palace ball before the Revolution--and he records as many of the follies of the past as their glories. But he's determined to fire one last salvo against those who would write off the past, and so collects that past in an attempt to give it presence.
And his film has every bit the rigorous technique as the masterpieces he's trying to save. Much too much ink has been spilled over the Russian Ark's apparent "stunt" of operating in one 96-minute long take; it's a virtuoso feat to be sure, but what does it do? Simply this: it refuses to give the director the luxury of choice. A standard montage practice would allow the filmmaker to give the illusion of mastering time and space, when none of us have the option to do so in reality. Thus the long, long take restores the audience's ability to be trapped in space, and for the camera to assume the position of one of us, wandering through infinite space--as one would do in a gallery, perhaps.
The strategy reinforces the heartbreak of the march of history over culture and makes the re-creations all the more devastating in their expression of loss. Perhaps Sokurov shouldn't be so cynical--after all, commies and capitalists have come up with their fair share of worthy masterpieces and movements. But there's no doubt the past is slipping away day by day, and that the image bank is being eroded by the ignorance of the last century. Russian Ark is both devastating and important, a frantic warning that if we don't look back from whence we have come, we will one day open our eyes and see nothing. Originally published: February 21, 2003.