Dir. Alexander Sokurov. (2001)
Russian Ark is a monumental film, a true milestone in cinema history. From its inception, cinema’s uniqueness lay in its editing. And in over 100 yrs, the production of meaning through this procedure has been at the heart of cinema theory. For many, artistic equated with the long uninterrupted take.
In 1948 Hitchcock made “Rope”, a film of long takes edited to make it look like it was one continuous long take. There was a limit to take length, however: the cine camera’s film reel was 12 minutes long, maximum. Physically, there could not be a film with longer takes than this. Godard’s 1967 “Weekend” famously used a full film reel to shoot a single tracking shot. in 2000, Bela Tarr’s “Werckmeister Harmonies” consisted entirely of just 39 long takes.
Not until the advent of digital could this change. On 23rd December 2001 Alexander Sokurov’s crew recorded, on their fourth take, a complete 94 minute film in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, with a cast of 2000 costumed actors and extras, using a steadicam and a hard-drive in a backpack unit.
As a story, Russian Ark follows a mysterious figure (the Marquis) in a wander through 33 rooms of the Winter Palace, going through periods of the museums 300 year history. The voyage is a voyage through time, with characters both real and fictional appearing as we witness moments of Russian history. but it is not as simple as that: at times the marquis and accompanying camera seem to be invisible, passing contemporary museum visitors, other times speaking to them and likewise to the camera.
Past Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky, who Sokurov is often cited as heir, wrote a book “Sculpting In Time”, in which he outlays his artistic theories on the nature of editing and the relationship between the cut and time. If editing is the mastery over time, then whence the film without a single edit? A clue may lie in Sokurov’s working title/subtitle of the film “In One Breath”. The film drifts, not just in the way of the steadicam, but its languid journey from room to room uses those doorways as substitute edits. Sokurov equates, or even replaces, time with space. This is the key understanding of the film – and it is completely apt for a film in, and about, a museum. For what is a museum but time gathered in spaces?
Taken in this view, the single take is far more than a gimmick or an over-extended device (a la Birdman), the very language of the film speaks of the defying of time that this remarkable place the Hermitage encapsulates: fluid, dream-like, breathlessly contiguous.
The camerawork aside, the staggering beauty of the Hermitage alone is breathtaking. The costumes of over 2000 actors and extras in glorious period detail is equally stunning. The Marquis is a mischievous, mysterious, guide, conversing with a never-seen figure that is the camera’s POV. Snippets of history, courtly rumour, philosophising on the exhibited art, the nature of art, and the passage of time through, over and around Russia. And as the film progresses, that breathlessness builds in the almost impossible to believe ballroom scene – with a full orchestra and hundreds of ballroom dancers perfectly choreographed with the Marquis and camera blending perfectly in. The ball ends and the hundreds file out, the camera joining this endless river of humans, a flow of time and history pouring to – what end? A glimpse outside to a (cg rendered) cold, dark, river shrouded in icy fog – the Hermitage revealed as an Ark, caught in the never-ending current of time and history.