Not many filmmakers are like Russian auteur Alexander Sokurov, and there is truly no film quite like the director’s crowning achievement (at least in the eyes of this writer), Russian Ark. Sure, directors like Alfonso Cuaron, David Fincher, and the like have become bravura filmmakers with as much style as they have substance (if not exponentially more), but again, the world does not have a comparison for director Sokurov.
Debuting in 2002 as part of that year’s Cannes Film Festival, Sokurov’s film is as singular a historical epic as cinema has ever seen. Narrated by an unseen wanderer, the film is more so a journey through the grounds of a giant compound known as the Hermitage Museum, located in Saint Petersburg. However, this is not a guided tour, as one would imagine based on that single sentence. The building, and each of its rooms, ostensibly houses periods from throughout the legendary city’s three century existence. Joined by a character resembling the traveler Marqius de Custine (a French traveler who, in the 19th Century, wrote on his trips through Russia, looking at its social status, economy, politics, etc.), the film is a roughly 90-minute-long experiment that is as intellectually stimulating as it is gorgeous.
Oh, and did I mention that it’s shot in entirely one, unbroken take? Because that’s the real kicker here.
Marquis de Custine’s doppelganger, and his existence within the film, is a telling starting point for any discussion with regards to this film. The writer, as mentioned above, is arguably best known for his works reflecting his journeys through the Russian empire. While his work is ostensibly set during one period of time, and Russian Ark covers in its own way roughly 300 years, many of the same topics are touched upon throughout this film. Concluding with arguably one of the greatest set pieces in cinema history, the film encompasses everything from Russian politics, to the class struggle that would ultimately tear the nation apart. Hell, that very final act is, itself, set against an oncoming revoltion, leading its final journey down a staircase to hold inside of it as much dread as it does beauty. These men and women, and their way of life, are very much literally already within their final resting place, the Hermitage Museum.
Holding within it as much brain as it does visceral and visual brawn, Russian Ark is more than just a pretty motion picture. But damn if it isn’t a pretty motion picture.
The real elephant in the room, with regards to any discussion of the film’s aesthetic, is the use of one take and the most fluid camera work in all of film. Steadicam footage had been awing audiences for years, first really coming to prominence in a film like Kubrick’s The Shining. However, while it may be seen as nothing more than a pretentious choice being made by a filmmaker more interested in aesthetics than telling a great story, they both truly come hand in hand.
Shot on a day where only four hours of sunlight would be available, two takes were allotted, with the first coming to a close after five minutes. The second, the one seen here in the film, nearly injured its cameraman, and yet, it is easily the most beautiful single take in all of film. Paired with stunning photography from Tilman Buttner, and some breathtaking costume, set and production design, the film is truly a master class in epic narrative filmmaking.
However, again, it’s not just style with a dash of substance. Getting back to the idea of the film as a journey narratively (not just in the abstract idea of “journey”), it’s through the aesthetic that it becomes palpable. Flowing as if you’re a ghost sent back through the annals of Russian history, there are moments where the character, and the camera, are acknowledged by characters on screen, and others (like possibly the best shot in the film, involving a group of girls running through a long hallway) simply pass by as if you don’t exist, culminating in the closest thing we’ve ever seen to a real dream on the big screen. The film itself could have been 100 shots as opposed to just one, but while it may have been just as beautiful, it would have never come close to being as powerful or as stimulating a drama. And that, my friends, is the definition of aesthetics aiding narrative.
Not one to let this feat go without being documented in more than just the one picture, a documentary surrounding the production of the film was also made, and is equally as insightful, but instead looking at Sokurov’s (and his crew’s) creative process. With a monumental weight seemingly disappearing off his shoulders as the word cut is uttered, the film is a thrilling race against the elements with the ultimate reward being a breathtaking masterpiece and an inarguably brilliant Master’s class in narrative filmmaking. A perfect pairing, this could, and hopefully one day will, maker for a great Criterion release.
But what else could be thrust upon this release? Well, already the recipient of a rather solid DVD, a Blu-ray is really the one upgrade needed here, as a new 2k or 4k transfer would be as welcome a restoration as anything we’ve ever seen. The DVD holds within it a commentary with producer Jens Meurer which is really superb and insightful, the aforementioned documentary, In One Breath, and some interviews all of which are rounded out by a relatively lengthy documentary looking at the setting of the film, the Hermitage Museum. All of these, and maybe some visual essays about the film, its use of Steadicam, and maybe a look at the historical periods touched upon in the film could make for a really superb Criterion release.
Overall, whether or not this film is ever minted on Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection, there is one thing that never needs to come into doubt. Not only Sokurov’s best film, this is easily one of the 25 greatest films ever made (and if I thought about it a tad bit harder, it’d probably be inching close to my personal top 10). Russian Ark is no mere film. A dream like meditation on Russian history, Sokurov’s masterpiece is as singular a cinematic experience as film has ever given us. A nearly 100-minute-long poem on Russian history, the film’s meld of aesthetic invention and narrative bewilderment is truly something to be seen.