Russian Ark is an amazing 96-minute sweep through 33 rooms of the famous Hermitage Museum, the former Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. It is trumpeted as being the first feature film ever created in a single take (after seven months of rehearsals and a few aborted attempts), which also makes it the longest uninterrupted tracking shot in cinema history and a rigorous test of stamina for any bladder-challenged cast and crew members.
Alfred Hitchcock shot Rope in 10-minute takes to promote a seamless visual flow. Martin Scorsese was heaped with accolades for the fluid camera movement that introduces us to the nightclubbing wise guys in Goodfellas and that escorts us from former boxing champ Jake La Motta’s dressing room to the ring in Raging Bull. Extended Steadicam sprints conjured the breathless urgency of Run Lola Run. Here, Alexander Sokurov uses this extended effect on a high-definition digital video camera, an army of technicians and more than 2,000 actors and extras to take us on a tour of 300 years of Russian history and a treasure trove of art and opulence.
Our lead docent for this “living history” journey is an unseen narrator (the voice of Sokurov) who first talks to us in Russian (with English subtitles) over a black screen. “I only remember there was some kind of accident,” he says. “Everyone running for safety the best they could. I just can’t remember what happened to me.” The camera opens just outside the Hermitage. “Am I invisible?” our host wonders as he follows a group of 1880s military officers and women in elegant evening dresses inside. Or, has he just gone unnoticed?
Our human narrative anchor soon hooks up with an opinionated former French diplomat dressed in black. The European reeks of attitude as he also ponders his sudden emergence in “a time of geniuses and manners.” “What am I doing speaking Russian?” he asks. Our invisible guide has no clue. It’s his country but not his century, and our tour through time as well as grandly furbished rooms has him wondering if the constant swirl of activity and foreground and background dialogue has been staged especially for him, and what role, if any, he is to play.
Among the personages that cross paths with our two pilgrims are Peter the Great (described as a paradoxical leader who taught his people how to have fun but also ordered the execution of his own son), Empress Catherine II (the only character to rush about in search of a bathroom), Anastasia and current Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky. We watch as the grandson of the Shah of Iran apologizes in an ornately formal meeting for the murder of a Russian diplomat at the hands of a Tehran mob. We join a ball in process as guests dance to a live orchestra. And we gaze upon a gallery of Italian paintings and other precious works as if caught in a daydream, as our Frenchman interacts with several characters and continually ridicules Russian culture.
Russian Ark is a breezy blend of art, history, esoteric musings and philosophy. I didn’t know exactly who some of the characters were, and nor did I really care. The film is tempered as it muses on “nationalist sympathy,” the crushing of free thought by tyranny, the soft life of the rich and privileged (who rather ironically are soon to topple) and the effect of modern dress on the arts (“Such clothing kills a man’s creative essence”).
The Frenchman brings his Catholicism out front and center when he complains of a painting such as “The Circumcision of Christ” being on the same wall as “Cleopatra.” And his snobbery is rivaled only by a keen sense of smell (he has a near-fetish for the scent of canvassed oils). There also is an interesting arc to his character that supports the film’s final statement, which likens the Hermitage to the Ark and suggests that “we will float forever, and we will live forever”—and that our art not only survived but, even more importantly, also has helped us survive an unending string of wars and catastrophes.