Writer-director Alexander (née Aleksandr) Sokurov a perennial presence at major film festivals with such recent work as Taurus (2000), Moloch (1999) and, earlier and much more satisfactorily, Mother and Son (1996) is on the whole more respected than beloved. Before attending film school, the now-51-year-old country boy turned St. Petersburger got his university degree in history, and has looked there for his subject matter ever since. Only it's not just history, to hear his admirers tell it: On Sokurov's own official Web site, one Russian critic describes the filmmaker's subject as "man and his fate" surely a daunting ambition for anyone's lifework, and one that has led to accusations of grandiosity.
Certainly, only an artist with an inflated sense of mission could conceive of his work as a kind of biblical ark for 300 years of modern Russian history. Russian Ark opens with a black screen and the voice of an unnamed filmmaker (Sokurov's, actually) explaining that he's just regaining consciousness after some mysterious "accident" perhaps, the viewer may come to believe, the historical "anomaly" of Russian communism. When the black gives way to a clear image, we're in a back courtyard of the Hermitage museum complex (of which Peter the Great's Winter Palace is the oldest building) amid officers and ladies, dressed in 18th-century finery, as they make their way to a party inside. The camera/unseen filmmaker scurries along with them and soon meets up with the figure who will be our companion and guide, a 19th-century French diplomat known only as the Marquis (Sergey Dreiden) a man of exquisite taste, and at the same time a familiar Russian punching bag, the Western dilettante blind to the depths of the aggrieved Russian soul.
With the Marquis' appearance, the film settles into its formal structure, a journey through the Hermitage as art museum and living historical presence. Working with German cinematographer Tilman Büttner, who was the Steadicam operator on Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run, Sokurov shot all of Russian Ark as one continuous take. To accomplish this, he employed a high-definition video camera that stored its images on a specially developed portable hard drive that could record up to 100 minutes of uncompressed images. (The video image was eventually transferred to 35mm film.) As the camera makes its way through the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, the "ark" of the title, it weaves in and out of time periods, assessing canvases and sculptures, glimpsing small vignettes and vast scenes. To make sure that our eyes don't get bored, the camera moves up, down and all around, compensating for the absence of editing by continually reframing the action.
But clearly, something more serious than stylistic innovation is afoot here something too serious, Sokurov must have felt, for mere drama. Russian Ark doesn't act so much as it muses: on art, on history, on Russia versus the West, on politics. The first long segment of the tour touches upon the creation of the Winter Palace by Peter the Great (Maxim Sergeyev), whom we spy in a small room, dressed in one of his favored peasant costumes, thrashing a general presumptuous enough to have made advances to a princess. This Asiatic tyrant, the Marquis sniffs, is a cultural parvenu who, tellingly, built his "European" edifice on a swamp.
Sokurov's rejoinder is purely cinematic, a stunning coup of motion that brings us up and down twisting staircases, out into a vineyard of ropes and creaking pulleys, a working backstage, down across the top of an orchestra pit, and up to a balcony where Catherine the Great (who founded the Hermitage as a museum and stocked it with paintings and sculpture) directs her own play, then dashes out to an upstairs foyer in desperate need of a place in which to "piss." High art, low comedy, hard labor and royal prerogative are here thrown together in an elegant unity, a breathtaking demonstration of Russian cinematic hence artistic brilliance.
Russian Ark now begins a new sequence, detouring into a gallery filled with modern-day museum visitors. Without finding the Marquis particularly out of place, two of them a doctor and an actor, friends of Sokurov draw him over to a Tintoretto painting (The Birth of John the Baptist) and discuss the symbolism of a cat and a chicken. Next, the Marquis encounters a blind woman feeling a statue; she takes him onward to her favorite painting and stands aside as he smells the oil on the canvas.
An intense desire to reanimate the artworks by bringing all the senses to bear on them culminates in a gallery of Goyas. Both the Roman Catholic Marquis and the ever-unseen Sokurov are struck dumb by the religiously themed canvases, as the camera nearly brushes up against them in a gesture of infatuation. By now, the film's allusiveness has grown extraordinarily intense: Goya's rejection of perspective and line in favor of color and light reflects the differences between film and video. And in the very next scene, the Marquis attacks a young Russian boy for not knowing enough to admire a portrait of saints Peter and Paul he's gazing at, undoubtedly a reference to the palace's Tower of Saints Peter and Paul, a site of much historical strife.
Up till now, Russian Ark has been technically fascinating, but essentially cold and didactic. Now, energized by his encounter with fine art, the Marquis starts rhapsodizing over the cultural sophistication of the Russian czars. Oh, they were beasts, he says, but what good taste! (He would naturally think so: The Romanov court famously aped the French court in fashion and etiquette.) Then, in a fit of idle curiosity, he opens a door, only to find a hulk of a workingman a survivor of Germany's 900-day siege of Leningrad (Soviet-speak for St. Petersburg), in which as many as a million Russians succumbed to hunger and disease talking of death and destruction. But the Marquis doesn't want to hear about it. He slams the door shut and runs off to another building to join in a series of masques, official ceremonies and, finally, a gigantic, brilliantly photographed ball that, according to the press notes, depicts the last Great Royal Ball ever held in the Winter Palace, in 1913. Transfixed by the high life of the royal court, the Marquis doesn't want to hear about the struggles of the Russian masses.
But what, in the end, does Sokurov want to tell us about them? Between the big fancy-dress scenes, there are smaller, more nostalgic moments. After a small group of lovely girls skip down a hall dressed as angels, one goes in to sit with her father, Emperor Nicholas II, and mother, Empress Alexandra, and is addressed as Anastasia. Sokurov is invoking one of the great myths of White Russia, that of the missing princess who escaped the Bolshevik firing squad. Russian Ark is dallying with reaction here, and the flirtation persists right up to the film's end, which coincides with the end of the ball. As many hundreds of noble and military guests make their way down decorous, baroque-neoclassical halls to the huge main staircase, the camera walks among this politely surging mass of polished humanity and, in a last bravura flourish, turns and faces them head-on at the door and watches as they pass behind and into the street.
Sokurov displays enormous ambivalence throughout these scenes of court life. While the Marquis runs off to join in the ball and, indeed, on many occasions when the Marquis runs off the director's voice warns him to hold back. During the ball, the Marquis, as he waltzes, can't even hear the director's voice as he mourns the passing of so many lives, though not the end of this way of life. As he stands and watches the partygoers exit to their doom, it's with a certain detachment.
The film has a secret code, and the code book is V.I. Pudovkin's 1927 Bolshevik classic The End of St. Petersburg, a story of the communist revolution. As dedicated to expressive editing as Sokurov is to long, long takes, Pudovkin ended his film on the same grand staircase as does Sokurov. But Pudovkin used montage to ascend the stairs and focused on an individual, a revolutionary woman searching for her husband.
Sokurovs long, unbroken shot with a huge group of aristocrats is a riposte to Pudovkins. Additionally, Sokurovs movie ends the same year Pudovkins begins. Is Sokurov voicing a preference for the refinement of individual taste drawn from masses of undifferentiated aristocrats over the masses as represented by a single individual. Its difficult to say. Both films, in a sense, are overcome by their techniques.
But Sokurov does connect one piece of history with another and that is no small accomplishment.