Film Review: See “Russian Ark”

I can’t praise this film enough.

Russian Ark (2002) is a single, unbroken tracking shot that: (1) lasts for an hour and a half; (2) manages to tell the story of two characters caught in the sweep of Russia’s epic history; and (3) orchestrates the movement of over 2000 people.

Think about that. Think how many things could go wrong trying to make a feature-length film in a single unblinking tracking shot, and that didn’t.

This is the cinematic equivelent of seeing how long you can go without coming, and discovering yourself dwarfing all of history’s previous attempts, landing next to the fat twins on motorcycles in the Guinness Book of World Records.

The director, Alexander Sokurov, attempted the shot on a single afternoon, at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. The shot covers nearly a mile of roaming the hallways, corridors, grounds, and rooms of the famous museum. He botched it on the first three attempts, but hit it so exquisitely on the fourth that one is simply left gaping at the beauty and power of his achievement.

Watching Russian Ark has the feel of witnessing exquisite choreography done on highwire, where even one aesthetic mistep would break the film’s spell and collapse the performance—and yet, seemingly miraculously, none occurs.

There is an “ooh and ahh” quality to watching this film, as if one is experiencing the organic unfolding of a garden of flowers opening to the sun.

In its gorgeousness, sensuousness, ambition, and poetic orchestration of a huge cast, Russian Ark seems to be Sokurov’s 21st century response to Fritz Lang’s German silent film masterpiece, Metropolis.

Russian Ark is, as it were, a Russian Metropolis.

If you called Sokurov’s achievement heroic, I would not argue. Ayn Rand would have loved this film, and if she has any aesthetically alert contempory devotees, they would love it too. Sokurov is Howard Roark and Cecil B. DeMille rolled into one.

The film begins with a black screen.

The narrator, speaking to himself, says “I open my eyes and I see nothing,” and we are left to infer that he has perhaps died, so that when the tracking shot begins we seem to have joined him on his journey as a ghost with an unblinking, roving eye. 

Like one of the animals entering Noah’s ark, the narrator follows a group of people (who don’t perceive his presence) entering, via a side door, St. Petersburg’s Hermitage. In other words, the “herd” moves from the wintery weather outside into the warm embrace of a building suffused with European high culture.

It is here that we begin to catch on to the conceit of the film’s Noah-alluding title. The Hermitage is, as it were, an Apollonian Love Boat of beauty and high culture that floats in the midst of the heaving watery chaos of Russia’s Dionysian history.

The narrator, as he begins to haunt about—sometimes visible to others, sometimes not—finds himself joined by another ghost, the 19th century French travel writer, diplomat, and aesthete, Marquis de Custine.  

So it is that we discover, with the narrator and Custine, that they—and we—are moving, not just in space, but in historic TIME. In one room we may find ourselves with the narrator and Custine in the 18th century, in a second room the 21st century, and in a third room the 19th century.

Custine functions as a kind of Virgil to the narrator’s Dante, leading him about the Hermitage and pointing out things.

Their roles do switch up a bit in places. When they pass through a room that has 20th or 21st century people in it, for example, Custine, who died in the mid-1800s, is perplexed. The narrator then takes on the roll of guide, telling Custine tidbits of information about what is, to Custine, in the future.

Marquis de Custine is played perfectly by Sergei Dreiden. Tall and lanky, taut and elastic—he is utterly mesmerizing to follow. His movements are those of a dancer. And his sensuous and sharp eyed wit and commentary on the people and art that he encounters heightens our own appreciation of what we are experiencing. He is the spell-casting aesthete opening our eyes to life’s beauty and strangeness.

What may be the most poignant moment of the film is where it starts to wind down, and in which we, and our accompanying ghosts, follow thousands of early 20th century people, still warm from an evening of ballroom dancing, down a grand staircase, soon to depart the Hermitage into the Russian cold, as a mass of animals might leave Noah’s ark. The moment is poignant because we know their fate, for they are, without yet knowing it, moving in time and space toward the Russian Revolution and World War I.

The final moment of the film is devastating and perfect, and will be left for you to savor, and not be revealed.

Russian Ark is, in short, a seminal film—perhaps the first truly seminal film of the 21st century. It takes its place, deservedly, alongside Fritz Lang’s Metropolis as one of the most beguiling and haunting films ever made, and that will ever be made.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Film Review: See “Russian Ark”

  1. Pingback: The Grand Rapids LipDub: Russian Ark, American Style | Prometheus Unbound

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