Saturday, 15 December 2007

Russian Ark (Sokurov, 2002)

Few people seem to have heard of Aleksandr Sokurov’s
Russian Ark. I’m here to fix that. This is a film that comes with a major gimmick - it’s noted as the first feature to have been filmed in one single and continuous shot. Yep, that’s right - one take. All 96 minutes of it. I’m pretty sure that Mike Figgis’ Timecode pulled off the same feat earlier, but Ark seems to have stolen some of the limelight - and rightly so. I haven’t seen Timecode, but I’m sceptical as to whether it even remotely approaches the spellbinding motion picture experience that is Russian Ark.

Sokurov’s epic is a time-travelling saga like no other. Set entirely within the confines of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum complex, the film criss-crosses across 300 years of recreated Russian history, encountering the likes of Peter and Catherine the Great along the way. This achievement was made possible by over 4,500 cast and crew members, working together to ensure that the film could be completed in its single take. The enormity of their accomplishment is even more striking when one realises that the Hermitage only granted one day for Sokurov to shoot the film. After three false starts, he completed it just in time. For that work ethic, we can only be thankful. The fruit of all this labour is a delicate exploration of the nature of history and its effect on a national consciousness. Complementing this is the enormous cast, costumed in lavish period outfits and hustling and bustling their way around one of the almightiest of all cinematic historical settings in the Hermitage. Cinematographer Tilman Büttner’s (Run Lola Run , Downfall ) steadicam camera floats, glides and even waltzes its way through all this commotion, spotlighting various moments of action seemingly at random. It lends a graceful fluidity to events, mirroring the transience of time. We come to understand that the single, continuous take is not just gimmick, but is vital for representing the eternalness of history itself. The non-linear, improvisational ‘structure’ of the film thus acts as an evocation of the chaos of a nation’s past.

In terms of central characters, we are handed only an off-screen narrator (whose visual point of view we share) and an arrogant French Marquis who is as much provocateur as he is guide. Together, the pair echo the unceasing tensions between Russia and western Europe. Their meandering debates on Russian culture (the Marquis accuses the nation of plagiarising European mores) makes for gripping banter. That all this takes place in the Hermitage, an inherently Russian symbol that harbours many works of European art in the most ‘western’ of Russian cities, adds further significance.

The role of art is paramount to Russian Ark, and there are several instances when the camera lingers incessantly upon paintings, as if to emphasise their transcendence over our mortality. The Marquis’ criticisms disturb the wistful spirit of these moments, as he accuses the Russians of lacking their own art heritage. In a brilliant act of self-reflexivity however, the film itself quietly acts to contradict such claims. Russian Ark continues a tradition of revolutionary Russian art cinema, begun in the 1920s. Whilst pioneers like Eisenstein advocated montage editing, Sokurov – in what is surely a deliberate act – completely opposes the core values of montage theory with his single-take style, in itself innovatory. Against such a context, the Marquis’ denigrations are subtly dismissed as completely unfounded.

A pervasive melancholia haunts the film as it runs it course, and culminates during the final magnificent sequence – a recreation of the last great ball held in Imperial Russia. Sokurov seems nostalgic for Russia’s ‘Golden Age’, and the lavishness and joviality of the Tsarist era is juxtaposed with the gloomy representation of the Soviet era. At one point, the narrator states that he is “unsure” of his feelings towards the present Russian government, implying a loss of bearings regarding contemporary reality. Considering the last tumultuous century in Russian history, who can blame him?

Sokurov acknowledges the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky on his work, and there is indeed a spiritual thread weaved into Russian Ark. Aside from numerous biblical references in the museum, it is implied that our two ‘protagonists’ are dead and simply journeying through time. Their voyage then, could be interpreted as a deeply personal one, designed as a search for identity and meaning, as well as simple time travel.

As a cinematic achievement, Russian Ark is incomparable. Its technical worth speaks for itself. That Sokurov should also find time to step back and infuse his work with artistic merits is estimable. His Ark is a complex saga that underlines the importance of a cultural heritage and its role in the development of a national identity. He investigates the core of his nation’s history, commenting on its fragile relationship with the West as well as its own internal struggles. Ultimately though, he shows the difficulty in attempting to understand a historical past by accentuating the everlasting concept of time, which is always beyond us. He invites us to empathise with a history that isn’t our own. And he succeeds. When the film concludes by stating “we are destined to sail forever”, one can’t help but feel both moved and exhilarated after witnessing such an extraordinary vision.

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