On December 23, 2001, director Alexander Sokurov and his cast of a couple thousand actors went into the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia and attempted to do something that while a potential nightmare practically and logistically could be a technical marvel. The result was a single, unbroken 99-minute shot, winding through the museum and its many areas, and Russian Ark is the fruits of the labor.
As far as the story within the movie, it weaves back and forth through many epochs, with the constants being two people: the first is the Marquis de Custine, a French born writer who was known for his travels to and works on Russia and its notable figures in history. The other is a figure who we do not see but we hear almost consistently, almost like a voiceover track. The two go in and out of various rooms within the Hermitage, from one featuring works from Italian artists depicting Russian historical figures, to large rooms where a ball is performed to a large orchestra. Additionally, portions of Russian eras are given attention (along with historical figures such as Peter the Great and Catherine the Great among others), albeit in a non-linear fashion.
In and of itself, the film is hugely unconventional from a storytelling perspective. Also it is hard to really provide a solid evaluation of the talent that appears onscreen for most of the film because primarily they serve as tour guides. However, this is because the reason the viewer is here is to soak up the splendor in different ways. Viewing the various eras and artwork that the Hermitage houses is at times jaw dropping to view in how well they have been preserved for decades, nay centuries. Russian Ark gives you a deeper appreciation for how well preserved the Russians have kept their artifacts and how amazing the museum is.
And what of this magical single take (which occurred on the third take) that comprises the movie? Well it is pretty fricken cool, but one can sense while the movie unfurls that it shows some of the strains of getting the next sequence set up. This is to say that the camera meanders in one moment longer than it is expected or that should be, to enter a new area. It is not the fault of Tilman Buttner, who deserves a medal for his work as the film's cinematographer (and whose name may be recognized for some for his work on the recent film Hanna), sometimes the take tends to take up the room, so to speak.
This aside, the realization of the technical achievement that Russian Ark manages to get to is amazing regardless. Steadicam work has grown in creativity and scope and this would be the mecca for camera operators it would seem. Set against a breathtaking background and a fascinating look at and retelling of Russian history over centuries, it deserves to be seen from anyone who considers themselves a cinemaphile.
Kino Lorber trots Russian Ark out with an AVC-encoded 1.78:1 widescreen presentation that is decent. The film itself was shot using digital cameras and recorded uncompressed to hard drives and in high definition. The film looks nice for long stretches, with discernible detail in paint canvasses, plate ware and in structural pieces like hallway arches and walls. But Russian Ark does not retain an ample amount of detail through the film, and black levels tend to be inconsistent. Colors and flesh tones are reproduced as faithfully to the original disc that can be expected and they look good. But after a decade I would hope one would do more than an average transfer to this film.
The disc has a two channel LPCM track and...that's it. So the decision to excise (or not include) a six-channel track, either the Dolby Digital one from the standard definition disc or a DTS-MA one is baffling. The LPCM track is fine, transmitting the action smoothly and balanced through the film, with gentle channel panning from one side to the other and dialogue is consistent throughout. The fact that I know that something better is out there (albeit in lossy audio form) kills me though.
The Blu-ray short changes potential double-dippers yet again, as it eschews the commentary, cast interviews and film on the Hermitage, all of which were included on the standard definition disc. It does include the trailer (1:44) and "In One Breath" (43:31), the closest thing to a making of that the film has. It includes interviews with the cast and crew, includes a handheld camera shooting the camera crew as they film, and discusses the 36 hour window the crew had to get the shoot in. It covers the ordeal of getting the production to work and touches upon some of the larger themes they believe the film has, and the technology is even given a moment or two in it also. All in all it is a very good piece.
To be clear: Russian Ark is an immense technical achievement. As a film not so much, but it is hard to have a complaint about the merits of the story when the film is centered around whether or not a practically shot take of 95 minutes (pre-credits) could be accomplished. Technically and from a bonus material it lacks a lot. On its own it is worth viewing for those who have not seen it, but for those who have the standard definition disc? I would recommend against the rebuying, if we are being honest.