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Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov took on an immense and highly risky task in 2002's Russian Ark (Russkiy kovcheg), a German-Soviet co-production that became an art house hit. Ambitious in both concept and execution, the film attempts to express the scope and breadth of Russian history and culture in a 99-minute pageant, all filmed within dozens of galleries and halls of St. Petersberg's Hermitage museum. An unseen narrator and a French visitor-guide stroll through the palace, which for the purposes of the film has become unstuck in time, Kurt Vonnegut-style: as they wander the halls they witness historical events and see the palace function in many historical eras, all happening at the same time, in random order.
What makes the film remarkable, and raises viewer curiosity, is that it is all filmed in one continuous unbroken take of about 94 minutes. The camera glides among the actors, through doors and into over thirty pre-lit rooms, without a cut, while what might be two thousand ornately costumed performing artistes.
The narrator follows his guide (Sergey Dreyden), who is called "The Stranger" but appears to be The Marquis de Custine, a real historical figure. The Stranger criticizes Russia as an Asian nation trying to become a European nation. He follows some celebrants into the Winter Palace for a 1913 grand ball. But once inside, the pair slips into other rooms, to see other events from different times. They witness the changing of the guard and then wander backstage to see Catherine the Great (Natalya Nikulenko) enjoying an opera. The Stranger critiques the artwork and upbraids a young admirer of religious paintings (Artyom Streinikov) for not having a Catholic point of view; he befriends a charming blind woman (Tamara Kurenkova) examining the statues and flirts with another mysterious woman who is more emotionally involved with the paintings than he is. As the Stranger and the narrator wander the halls they sometimes seem to be invisible, slipping in and out of groups engaged in formal ceremonies. But at other times royal guards and custodians block their way. Officials usher The Stranger away from tables being set up for a formal dinner, with golden plates and cutlery. They see Peter the Great receive envoys from Persia in an elaborate, slow ceremony, and watch as Nicholas and Alexandra's daughters dance and play in the hallways. A workman builds his own coffin in a gloomy room as the snow blows in -- it's the siege of WW2 and he's starving. The pair finally arrives back at the elaborate grand ball from 1913, where hundreds of celebrants dance the Mazurka, and then exit by a giant staircase.
Russian Ark gets its title from the idea that the Hermitage is the keeper of the Russian national history and culture, and that the one enormous palace contains centuries of grand Tsarist history. Russophiles and the curious will quickly forget that the movie lacks a conventional story -- we are instead carried along on a strange historical tour. It's the real palace, and its interior is an unbroken series of galleries of incredible beauty and design. We hear the amusingly opinionated Stranger talk about the paintings and rhapsodize over the statuary and ceramics. He can't decide if Russia is really a worthy place, but he's dazzled by the art, as are we.
We're also floored by the constantly changing parade of costumed actors, fully made up and bewigged, in hundreds (thousands?) of amazingly ornate costumes. There are no short cuts. When the ceremonial troops march we see perhaps sixty perfectly rehearsed soldiers at a time, in full regalia. There must be hundreds of formal gowns on display, all seen very clearly.
Sokurov's camera glides through all of this, often weaving in and out of the choreographed action; the final ballroom scene with the grand dancing is truly impressive. I noticed only a couple of moments in which an actor seemed aware of the camera. The film's illusion of a grand dream pageant is nearly flawless.
Nothing is explained directly -- we notice for ourselves that our 'tourists' are going where they should not go, and that stepping from one hall to the next will result in a time shift of 100 years. A group of nymph-like girls cavort as they play, and then somebody calls out the name Anastasia -- and we see a brief family gathering, with Nicholas hovering over his son Alexei. The dance orchestra at the big ball is a modern orchestra, conducted by the well-known Valery Gergiev.
Film students and neophyte directors often over-praise the idea of long and elaborate takes, with every would-be Orson Welles trying to out-do Scorsese in Goodfellas; since digital manipulation came in we've found out that it's not difficult to paste together multiple takes to give the illusion of one unbroken camera move. In Russian Ark I'm willing to believe that the claim is true, that the whole movie was made in one shot. Digital recording makes it possible, as there is no need to stop every nine minutes to change film loads, as in Hitchcock's Rope. The subject matter here is so immersive that we soon stop looking for flaws. Cameraman Tilman Büttner uses a SteadiCam rig and and operated the entire show without a break, earning the name "Iron Man." 1
The behind-the-scenes docu In One Breath gives us more reasons to appreciate Russian Ark as a daring adventure. The Hermitage was only available for filming for one day. There were four takes, the first three of which encountered technical problems. That means that Büttner had to go through the entire show not once but several times. To make things a bit easier no attempt to record final sound was done. Therefore the director could converse during the shooting, talk through camera moves and give direction. The cameraman could also communicate with his assistants, etc. Making things a bit harder was the fact that Büttner spoke no Russian and Sokurov no German ... so interpreters were involved as well.
Yes, the whole show is a stunt and a balancing act, the kind that reminds me of (be patient) W.C. Fields' juggling in his '30s comedies. Fields would often cap a complicated one-take dialogue scene of maybe a minute with an impressive stunt -- usually a juggling trick. If they just cut to him as he flipped five boxes or kicked a cane perfectly into a cane stand, we'd think, "Oh, they could have done that 20 times until it worked." The fact that Fields' stunt is the capper for a long shot convinces us that Fields could really perform the stunt at will and make it work, live.
That's what happens at the end of Russian Ark. After ninety minutes of perfectly executed scenes (which must have all been exhaustively pre-rehearsed) the film swings into the elaborate dance number, becoming part of the action. The effect is breathtaking.
The Kino Lorber Blu-ray of Russian Ark is a stunning HD encoding of this impressive blend of historical pageant and blatant film stunt. Colors are excellent, even though we can tell that the lighting had to be augmented in post-production on a few scenes. I believe narrative films need to be cut, but this is a different kind of narrative, for which the floating dream-camera seems appropriate. Besides, we're too busy being floored by a production more impressive than any period ballroom film ever made. The film is about cultural appreciation, and it works.
Kino Lorber's disc comes with the full 43-minute documentary In One Breath, which is almost as fascinating as the film itself. Only 24 hours to get all those actors and dancers in position, ready to go with their one-take super-pageant. How did they make the communication work -- how many assistant directors? How many last-minute problems, or crazy improvised cues? The movie's action never looks stiff.
An original trailer is included as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Russian Ark Blu-ray rates:
1. Note however that three editors are credited -- on a movie with no cuts? The explanation does take the film down a peg or two. Shot on full uncompressed HD, the images were manipulated in digital post. The one-shot truth was not compromised, but we are told that in several instances the framing was corrected, and a visual goof or two was eliminated (perhaps the erasure of an errant crewperson?). This info reduces our awe at the film's accomplishment, but not by much.
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Also, don't forget the 2011 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.