In a way it’s unfortunate that Alexander Sokurov’s “Russian Ark” is destined to be remembered as a technical marvel–the first film to be shot in a single take from beginning to end. That’s because admiration for the virtuoso camera-and-choreography feat–something that’s impossible to ignore, especially when (as the trailer tells us) some two thousand performers, three hundred years of Russian history, 33 rooms in the Petersburg Hermitage and three symphony orchestras were involved–may overshadow appreciation for its more general artistry, which is substantial. The picture is a remarkable piece of filmmaking, to be sure, but it’s also simply a remarkable film, a visionary poem to the Russian past that washes over the viewer like an ancient, half-remembered dream.
To be sure, the picture takes some getting used to; a few viewers might be tempted to bail out quickly, which would be a bad mistake. It begins–and will continue throughout–from the POV of an unseen twenty-first narrator, who finds himself dislocated in time and utterly bewildered, outside the Winter Palace as a period-costumed crowd of guests pour into the doors. He follows them, soon bumping into another lost soul, an elderly French diplomat (the remarkably agile and articulate Sergei Dreiden), apparently from the nineteenth century, who’s astonished to find himself speaking Russian but soon becomes our garrulous, opinionated guide. Through the eyes of the narrator, we watch The Marquis as he interacts with museum visitors (an ebullient woman, a terrified young man), catches glimpses of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and the doomed family of Nicholas II, and finally intrudes upon an elaborate ceremony in which the Persian ambassador is received by Czar Nicholas I, as well as the reception that follows it (marked by a dance to music conducted by none other than Valery Gergiev, the director of the Kirov Opera). Throughout the visuals are given a hazy, ethereal quality, as though the images were surrounded by halos of light–an effect that, especially when combined with the narrator’s halting observations and The Marquis’ stream of witty, smug remarks, keeps one alert despite the potentially lulling effect of the film’s wave-like rhythms.
It goes without saying that the complexity of this enterprise is absolutely staggering (to get an idea of the number of people involved, just sit through the closing credits, which seem to run on longer than those for “The Matrix Reloaded”). One can only imagine the enormous preparation and precision demanded in getting every extra to hit his mark exactly right as cameraman Tilman Buttner glided through the halls and past the crowds, carrying the steadicam which housed a high-definition video camera. The only film that can mentioned in the same breath is Hitchcock’s “Rope” (1948), which tried to get the impression of a single, continuous shot by carefully editing the twelve-minute takes possible for cameras of the time in ways designed to make the motion appear seamless. But that film was a small-scaled effort with only a few actors, played on a single stagebound set, and hardly a comparable accomplishment. “Russian Ark” is made on a vast canvas constantly in motion, and from the perspective of pure craftsmanship it must be counted one of the most miraculous accomplishments ever brought to the screen.
Thankfully, all the effort has been put at the service of a concept which (again unlike “Rope,” which was a simple tale of murder spruced up with some puerile philosophical reflection) has true richness and depth. When this ark concludes with the nineteenth-century crowd streaming out of–or disembarking from–the palace, the knowledge that all the opulence will pass away in the devastation of the twentieth century, but that hope in the survival of civilization will nonetheless persist, gives texture to the narrator’s final comment about us all sailing on forever–common passengers on the waves of history. Sokurov and his many collaborators on this amazing film give us a portrait of Russian culture in which past, present and future don’t so much collide as imperceptibly merge with each other and intermingle. “Russian Ark” is a rarefied experience, but a rare wonder.