Believed by Alexander Sokurov to be the only location in the world to truly represent both the history and culture of humanity, the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia was conceived by the master filmmaker as the sole conservatory of all we hold sacred, a single ark of supreme majesty in a sea of enlightened murk, the Russian Ark. And why not? Founded by Catherine the Great in 1764, the colossal complex of galleries and ballrooms is home to, at over three million paintings, the single largest collection of artwork in the world. Sokurov’s ark not only contains an immense wealth of art (still only a fraction of it’s holdings), but countless true-to-history aristocrats who walk the decadent halls, transcending time to intermix with spiritual visitors in traditional ceremonies, modern gallery gazing, an all out ballroom celebration, and everything in between. As ghostly visitors ourselves, we are given privy to a leisurely first person tour of the vast estate in a mind-blowing single take that remains uncut for the film’s entire running time.
A fantastic first time technical feat, yes. Especially considering the fact that the picture was shot over a decade ago, just on the brink of the cinematic digital revolution when the alchemy of actual film was still (just barely) the preferred medium over the pixelized perfection of digital cameras. Much of the technology behind the extended long take had to be specially made for the shoot – the ultralight steadicam rig, the ultrahigh capacity battery packs, etc – yet, what makes the film such a magnificent technical achievement is it’s incredible organization of bodies throughout the hour and half exploration. Literally thousands of extras and trained actors, mocked up in elegant costuming and makeup, never broke from their role. No one trips. No one starts giggling out of character. No one misses a line. In accordance with their agreement for a single day of closure for a single day of shooting at the Hermitage Museum, Sokurov and his boundless crew managed to capture the entire film on the forth try, the last and final attempt.
Our tour of the museum is languorously guided by a contentious European diplomat, played by classically trained actor Sergey Dreyden, whose opinion of Russian culture is at once thoroughly flippant yet candidly curious. Conversing with the camera, for all intensive purposes – the audience – our subdued voice projecting via Sokurov himself, the visitor slights Russian paintings as nothing more than European rip offs, “Truly. It’s like we’re in the Vatican…Weren’t those decorations inspired by sketches of Raphael?…Russians are so talented at copying. And why? Because you don’t have ideas of your own.” He marvels and critiques in a single breath. Sokurov, a bleeding heart Russian nationalist, softly and respectfully retorts. On our journey we observe power of the past in Catherine and Peter the Greats, literary giants like Alexander Pushkin, as well as later overseers of the Hermitage in Boris Piotrovsky and current director Mikhail Piotrovsky, all within the same time and space. These Russian cultural touchstones engage in the performance of dignified ritual, emanating a want for recognition, one thing never truly received from their European neighbors.
The world within Sokurov’s Hermitage is curiously fluid and transparent all at once. Most of the time, our presence on the grounds goes unnoticed. We warn our diplomatic companion not to touch anyone for fear of being detected, yet figures in black often conversate freely with us and museum guards occasionally shoo us from one room to the next as if we are intruders. Spirits or not, this is a place that demands utmost respect at all times. Vast, dense, and highly introspective, Russian Ark remains a buoyant vessel. Sokurov intends to dangle us from the edge, baptizing us in the riches of Russian culture, for antiquity is not harbored solely around the Mediterranean as some history books might have you believe. His magnificent film is both a work of technical brilliance and artful intelligence that challenges our knowledge of both cinematic conventions and the histrionic lives of Russia’s yesteryear.
Kino-Lorber have recently been going bare bones with most of their releases, going for a straightforward presentation without the frills of tacked on bonus content. Russian Ark, though lacking the commentary track which was included on the previously released DVD, this does have a decent making of short. Shot digitally, the film really benefits from the HD presentation. Colors are given new, vibrant life, fine detail in the intricate costuming comes across, as well as much more clarity in textures overall. Dubbed in post and presented here in uncompressed stereo, the audio sounds quite pristine, though voices overlap quite a bit, so complete digestion of all conversations is made quite difficult for anyone not fluent in Russian. All three of the orchestras in the film come across brilliantly full and alive. The disc itself comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray case.
In One Breath
Mixing the style of throwback PBS documentaries and classic EPK pieces, this decent look at the making of Russian Ark lends insight into the planning and preparation that went into its production. Interviews with the filmmakers and film critic Rich Holloway are interspersed with overwrought voiceover to make sure we remember that, yes indeed, the film is but a single, intense, almost technically impossible shot. Presented in SD. 43 min
Also presented in SD, this tone setting trailer gives a decent preview to the extravagancy of the production. 2 min
Sokurov’s masterpiece is an absolute marvel, a must-see if there ever was one. Luxuriously gentile and hauntingly lucid in it’s blending and reconstruction of the history held securely within the Hermitage Museum, the film is at its core a lavishly privileged tour of the magnificent palace. With your diplomatic companion by your side, take the stroll. Let Mother Russia boast a bit, for she has plenty to be proud of.