Russian Ark

Russian Ark
[Русский ковчег]

Russia, 2002
Color, 99 minutes
In Russian with English subtitles
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov
Screenplay: Boris Khaimskii, Anatolii Nikiforov, Svetlana Proskurina, Aleksandr Sokurov
Cinematography: Tilman Büttner
Production Design: Natal’ia Kochergina, Elena Zhukova
Music: Sergei Evtushenko
Cast: Sergei Dreyden, Mariia Kuznetsova, Leonid Mozgovoi, Mikhail Piotrovskii, David Giogobiani
Producers: Andrei Deriabin, John Hamilton, Jens Meurer, Karsten Stöter
Production: Egoli Tossel Film AG, Hermitage Bridge Studio

Russian Ark is an ambitious film. It purports to be a meditation on Russian culture, history, and imperial legacy, and how all three coalesce into the fleeting and uncertain notion of Russian identity. And perhaps these lofty themes explain the vertiginous virtuosity of Russian Ark’s form, as if Sokurov’s intellectual aspirations demanded they be matched with technical prowess. Whatever it says, Russian Ark is a statement: a single, uncut, 96-minute long Steadicam shot operated by cinematographer Tilman Büttner, meandering through one mile of the Hermitage Museum and two hundred years of Russian history. To capture “the flow of time” in “one single breath:” this is Sokurov’s hope for the unusual and impressive structure of Russian Ark.

We know little of the narrator, voiced by Sokurov himself.  He seems to be a ghost thrown back in time after an accident.  His companion, credited as “The European” (Sergei Dreyden) and who has been read as the French writer and traveller Astolphe de Custine, is effectively the protagonist, walking from room to room and epoch to epoch, dispensing (often caustic) commentary on the contents of the Hermitage, and what they say of Russia and Russian culture.  The narrator and the European go through chronologically ordered historical vignettes: Peter the Great reprimanding his general; Catherine the Great attending a rehearsal in the theater; Nicholas I receiving the Persian ambassador, who had come to apologize on behalf of the Shah for the murder of Russian diplomats in Tehran; and finally, a spectacular finale, the last ball in the Winter Palace in 1903.  Yet these mementos are interspersed with temporal anomalies: Catherine the Great ages dramatically in the span of a few rooms; historical characters stand alongside contemporary visitors of the Hermitage; a door, wrapped in shadows, opens inexplicably on empty frost-covered frames and a single, unhinged coffin-maker, a grim reminder of the Leningrad blockade during World War II, when canvasses were evacuated to Sverdlovsk.

All of these historical encounters, inscribed in time and yet also untethered from it, exist in the “Russian Ark” of the Hermitage Museum, which becomes an enclosed site of historical memory and preservation.  The image of the biblical Ark not only evokes the sampling of what is best representative of Russianhood, it also implies the need for urgent preservation in the face of impending doom.  What should be “saved” on this Ark?  Sokurov seems to only have a nostalgic answer to this question, since none of the historical scenes or art pieces go further than the early 20th century, implying that the Soviet empire and contemporary Russia are unworthy of cultural conservancy.

Most controversial perhaps is Sokurov’s idea of what makes up “Russia” or “Russianhood.”  If the idea behind a Russian Ark is the distillation of what constitutes national identity, then Sokurov offers two answers: History, with a capital H, the history of monarchs, grand political gestures and events; and Culture, always high-brow and elitist, with a clear nod to the past.  In Francofonia (2015), in many ways a twin to Russian Ark, the narrator (again, Sokurov himself) asks rhetorically, “What would France be without the Louvres? What would Russia be without the Hermitage?” The implied answer, that neither country would be much at all without their most famous museums, indicates the fetishization of a certain narrow idea of culture, where the museum holds center stage.  In that same film, Napoleon wanders the Louvres, and as he admires a painting, boastfully asks “Why do you think I waged all these wars?  For this!  For art!”  Art is the great underpinning to all political decisions.  It is both motivator and purpose.  It makes sense, then, that a Russian Ark would be devoted to a treasure trove of artworks and performances, and to a few political episodes whose ultimate goal was presumably to acquire said artworks.

However, there remains the distinct possibility of irony—that the cultural embalming at the heart of Russian Ark is a critique of the nostalgia and political conservatism of contemporary Russia.  After all, the narrative of Russian Ark quite literally stages historical and cultural memory: “Is this theater?” the narrator asks. “Am I expected to play a role?” Furthermore, one of Custine’s many criticisms is that Russian art merely imitates the great Western masters and lacks an identity of its own, as if Russian artists performed artistry, instead of their allegedly more genuine European counterparts. Performance, imitation, and counterfeit are recurring concerns of the film, as if Sokurov sought to sabotage his own role as an artist and chronicler, as well as the ostentatious performativity of Russian Ark itself.  At the same time as he enshrines art and history in a fragile long take, Sokurov undermines the preservationist effort that motivates the film with its very technical accomplishment, spelling both virtuosity and vanity.

Maxime Bey-Rozet

Aleksandr Sokurov is a Russian director of avant-garde and independent films that have won him international acclaim.  One of the most important contemporary filmmakers, Sokurov worked extensively in television and later graduated from the prestigious film school, VGIK, in 1979.  His films often created tensions with the Soviet authorities but he received great support from such film masters as Andrei Tarkovskii.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sokurov’s films started earning him numerous awards around the world.  While most known for his feature films, Sokurov has directed over 20 documentaries.  Sokurov has collected a number of awards at Berlin, Cannes, Moscow, Toronto, Locarno and European Film Awards.  He lives and works in Russia.

Selected Filmography (as director)
2015    Francofonia
2011    Faust
2010    We Need Happiness
2009    Reading Book of Blockade
2007    Alexandra
2005    The Sun
2003    Father and Son
2002    Russian Ark
2001    Elegy of a Voyage
2001     Taurus
1999     Moloch

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