Director: Alexander Sokurov
Writer: Alexander Sokurov, Anatoly Nikiforov
DP: Tilman Büttner
Editor: Stefan Ciupek, Sergei Ivanov, Betina Kuntzsch, Patrick Wilfert
Score: Sergei Yevtushenko
Producer: Andrey Deryabin, Jens Meurer, Karsten Stöter
Starring: Alexander Sokurov, Sergei Dreiden
Distribution: Wellspring Pictures
Length: 1 hr. 39 min.
Russian Ark is a film in which two characters, ostensibly ghosts, travel through the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. As they travel through the Palace's many rooms, they also travel through its history, witnessing events that took place there in the times of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Nicholas II, in the time of tourists visiting the Palace as a part of the State Hermitage Museum, and other periods of history. The entire film is shot in one take.
The footage went through heavy post-production that significantly altered it cinematically, compensating for the loss of control over the frame that came with shooting the whole movie at once. Because of this, some argue that the film being shot in a single take isn't quite as staggering an achievement as it immediately sounds. Even director Alexander Sokurov expressed something similar to this, saying that the final cut of the film was a more valuable achievement than the work of the cinematographer, and that many of his goals for the film ultimately went unrealized.
However technically accomplished the film is, I think it's much more relevant to discuss how the single-take conceit is used to great effect. I'm not referring to the obvious symbolism of how the constantly changing but unbroken image reflects the nature of history and influence across time. I'm referring to visceral effects, ways in which the film's form draws out a reaction relevant to its themes.
The film is not just shot in one take, it's shot from the apparent first-person perspective of the unnamed narrator, voiced by Alexander Sokurov himself. The narrator follows another character throughout the film, an unnamed European played by Sergei Dreiden. Both the narrator and the European exist beyond the constraints of time, moving freely between various periods of history as they walk through the Winter Palace. Their presence seems to be more or less unknown to the people they encounter in each period. For much of the film's first half, the European complains about the way Russian art emulates art from other parts of Europe and about the secular lens modern Russia applies to Catholic art. The European is concerned with matters of national identity, saying "a capital city should be ancient, not chimerical." This creates a failure of communication between him and others when trying to discuss art; many other characters attempt to discuss the symbolic or universal emotive content of art with him, but he ignores that and responds with commentary on its historical or cultural context.
The narrator makes attempts to bridge this gap, but is unsuccessful. Still, he continues to follow the European, not quite disputing his complaints but occasionally repeating them in a resigned, slightly exasperated tone. By keeping us trapped in the main character's eyes and having those eyes continuously follow Dreiden's character, Sokurov creates a profound sense of detachment and loneliness, reflective of Russia's relative lack of involvement with the pre-20th Century history of continental Europe. This is amplified by the way the narrator is unable to interact with other characters in the film; we observe various historical figures go about with no awareness of his presence, living stories independent of Russian Ark's loose narrative.
Sokurov examines Russia's detachment as a potential motive for the European influence on Russian art. On one hand, it is a matter of national pride; Dreiden's character perceives that Russia attempts to take on the same glory as other nations by producing art that takes influence from that of other nations. On the other hand, it is a matter of Russia's dissociation from the rest of Europe, the detachment captured in the camera which leads to an attempt to gain cultural breadth by creating something intelligible across national borders.
The film brings up the notion that Russia is a nation that has been drastically redefined more than once, which Sokurov illustrates in his depiction of the events of World War II and the final days of the Russian monarchy. As the camera closes in on the last Tsarina walking through the halls of the Winter Palace, it slowly becomes visible that she's heading into a foreboding darkness. The narrator says "everyone sees the future, but no one remembers the past," referring to the difference in perspective between past and current generations.
The climax of Russian Ark breaks away from such concerns. It shows a mass of people, united by the unbroken take, as they get lost in a common aesthetic experience. We're given a reprieve from our fixed position within the narrator's lonely experience. This, paired with the film's final shot, posits the Winter Palace and the art therein as a place that embodies the narrator's solitude, but also contains the means to fight against it across both time and space.
It's certainly an obvious film - you'd be hard pressed to miss the point. It's ostentatious too, either as a massive cinematic magic trick or as an elaborate advertisement for the State Hermitage Museum. But these things become secondary to the loneliness at the core of this film, the quiet wistfulness of the way we see through the eyes of someone constantly following another person through a crowd that doesn't even know they exist.