Russian Ark Review

We have no idea who we are or how we got there, but as a disembodied form, we are are guided through the State Hermitage Museum of St. Petersberg by a strange figure, the Marquis de Custine, guided through key events in Russian history, all taking place inside the museum, an ark of Russian achievements in history and culture over the last 300 years. Characters flit past, figures from the past and present intermingle, slip away, re-appear and vanish. All this happens in the flow of one single camera take, unbroken and uninterrupted, as time itself is unbroken and uninterrupted. There are no cuts, no pauses, no interruptions – everything exists in a single movement through time.

History and art are alive. They are not something that can be merely hung or displayed in a museum, a part of the past that we have drawn a line under and forgotten. Past flows into present, giving it depth, giving it context, giving it meaning, while the present provides us with hindsight and perspective on the past. This is exactly what Russian Ark does – it celebrates this summation of the duality of the Russian nature – a past that can’t be denied, a present that is striving to redefine itself – it explores the dichotomy between its Asian nature and its desire to be European, which is represented by the 18th century French Marquis and the modern-day Russian Stranger he is accompanying. Russian Ark over the course of its 95 minutes weaves images of the past and present together, historical events and cultural achievements, great emperors and celebrated poets, all of it co-existing, alive and vital and preserved within the walls of the Hermitage museum of St Petersberg.

This is not a film that will be appreciated by everyone. It is certainly not cinema as we are accustomed to it. There is no plot, no character development, precious little in the way even of any substantial characters. Not everyone will pick up the significance of everything we see, understand the historical relevance of events or know the nature and importance of all the characters we come across – but while knowledge of some of the historical background will undoubtedly inform and enrich the experience, the film is still fascinating and hypnotic viewing. Some of the best moments in the film operate on an instinctual and emotional level, where you aren’t expected to keep up with the cultural, historical and political references, such as the magnificent ball scene where you can wallow in the beauty of the Russian music or the overwhelming spectacle of the costumes and stream of people filing out at the end of the film.

What should be clear to anyone however is the ambition and the brilliance of the technical achievement – 4 years in development, 2000 actors in place, 3 orchestras, all co-ordinated and synchronised to shoot and complete the film in a single day, the 23rd December 2001, over one single 100 minute take. One step out of place, one word stumbled over and the whole project would have failed. Yet the technical achievement of the single-take film is the least of Sokurov’s accomplishments. The film is not a display of technical ability, it is a necessary, integral and vital element of the film – a perfect marriage of content and form – the flow of the camera mirroring the flow of time.

The picture quality is good, but not exceptional. It certainly appears to be a direct digital transfer – there are no signs of any of the typical marks that would be found on a film print and no tell-tale reel changes, which would be quite obvious in a single-take film. Colours seem fine and occasionally brilliant. The beautiful orange glow of candlelight transfers well to the DVD format as do the ballroom scenes, although it looks a little cold in places. At other times, shooting in dark corridors and rooms shows up the limitations of the digital format and the digital re-touching can be clearly seen. It is possible that the digital film was transferred to an analogue medium before transfer to DVD as there appears to be some minor colour fluctuation that would indicate a video source (see the rainbow colouration in the images of snow and sky in the screenshot below). Overall, the full warmth of the colour isn’t there and it loses something of the impact of the theatrical presentation.

Disappointingly, the UK Region 2 release from Artificial Eye only comes with a Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack, which is woefully inadequate for the complexity of the sound design. The Marquis and The Stranger both compete through the centre channel with none of the separation that is required. Similarly, when there are other voices or background music, the soundtrack becomes very cluttered. If it is not difficult enough to follow just who is speaking, there are also slight lip-sync problems. When there is silence, hiss and background noise can be heard. The impact of the orchestral finale is completely lost here. This is very disappointing, especially considering that the US Region 1 release reportedly has a flawless, almost reference quality Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack.

If the breathtaking scale and ambition of the project is not evident from the watching of the film itself, the Theatrical Trailer (1:41)
and the Documentary (43:28) make it perfectly clear. The documentary also throws some light on the museum, its history and what treasures it contains. It also provides some, but not a great deal of background information on some of the historical characters we see throughout the film. Hubert Robert – A Fortunate Life (1996) (26:46) is an excellent short documentary by Sokurov, that is highly relevant and thematically linked to the main feature. The documentary is a meditation on the work and life of Hubert Robert, an 18th century French painter (1733 – 1808), who has many works in the Hermitage. Needless to say, it is not filmed in a straightforward manner, but is highly-stylised, beautiful and moody. It has fixed English subtitles, 4:3 aspect ratio and some video artefacts are visible, but this is a very worthwhile extra. Biographies are provided for Alexander Sokurov and director of photography Tilman Büttner (who also displayed his steadicam skills on Run Lola Run). Production Notes are by Professor Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of The State Hermitage Museum and Weblinks are included to relevant sites.

There is one thing missing here – a commentary. Generally, I am not a fan of commentary tracks - I think a film should speak for itself, and if it needs to be explained then it has clearly failed as a film. However if ever a film could purposefully make use of this aspect of DVD technology and open up other levels like footnotes, Russian Ark is that film. The Region 1 release contains a commentary from the producer, Jens Meurer, but that commentary focuses on the technical elements, not on the artistic or the historical areas of the film.

There are few enough examples of true artistic genius nowadays, far less true examples of cinematic genius, but I believe that Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark is one of them. It is a film that should be celebrated as one of the highest pinnacles of artistic, creative, intellectual and technical achievement in the history of cinema. The film operates on so many levels that there is something new to be unravelled each time it is revisited. There are good extra features on the Artificial Eye UK Region 2 DVD, but the actual presentation of the feature unfortuately doesn't really do the film full justice.

Another view of the Russian Ark can be found in Michael Brooke’s Theatrical Review.

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