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Russian Ark

Wellspring // Unrated // September 9, 2003
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Matthew Millheiser | posted September 5, 2003 | E-mail the Author

The Movie

2000 Actors

300 Years of Russian History

33 Rooms of the Hermitage Museum

3 Live Orchestras

1 Single Continuous Shot

With this small blurb of text splashed across the theatrical trailer for the magnificent Russian Ark, I was immediately hooked and intrigued. This handsome-looking film promised to be a 1-1/2 hour movie composed of one single take, without any edits or pull-aways a la Hitchcock's Rope. Director Alexander Sokurov and his extremely talented crew, utilizing high-definition video cameras and portable hard drive units, created a mesmerizing and thoroughly enchanting film. Filmed inside the beautiful and expansive Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Sokurov constructed a dreamlike journey throughout various scenes of Russian history. A mind-boggling feat in and of itself, Russian Ark had to be planned, organized, choreographed, and pre-produced in extraordinary detail. As previously mentioned, the entire eighty-six minutes of video -- with thousands of actors, dozens of settings featuring varying degrees of lighting and dimension, dancers, musicians, performers, pyrotechnics, and other potentially limiting issues -- had to be shot in one single take. If anything went wrong -- a flubbed line, a technical glitch, a misjudgment in lighting or space, a dead battery, a wrong move, a sneeze, somebody tripping over their feet, a dancer pirouettes in the wrong direction, anything -- and the entire film had to be restarted again from the beginning.

Talk about pressure. Sokurov and his crew had three false starts before they were able successfully meet the challenge. Thankfully, the three false starts all occurred within the first ten minutes of filming, and these were during the least intensive and complex scenes of the movie! One can only imagine if some young Sergei decided, with two minutes left to go, to suddenly take an impromptu "bio-break." I think this would be grounds for justifiable homicide. I know I'd sympathize!

The film itself is simply extraordinary. Russian Ark is the ultimate tone poem, a constantly moving journey, not only through the Hermitage and its priceless collection of art or through Russian history, but perhaps through the steadfast nature of Russian nationalism, the splendor of its determination and the evolution of its zeitgeist. The film follows two time travelers: an unseen narrator through whose eyes we view this film, and the 19th-Century French diplomat Marquis de Custine. Representing the cultural differences between European and Russian popular and artistic ideologies, the two travelers play off of each other's attitudes throughout the movie. The Marquis is haughty, critical, and sarcastic, taking great strides in pointing out how Russia always looked to the art and culture of the Europeans, while the unseen traveler takes gentle but firm pride in his nation's accomplishments. While there isn't much in terms of a narrative -- in fact, there's barely anything in terms of a narrative -- Russian Ark sails meditatively throughout its journey, allowing the viewer to reflect upon the images, symbols, and history presented before them. I can see how some might get frustrated by the movie, or how they might admire the technical achievement much more than the cinematic one. I found Russian Ark to be a wholly transcendent experience, and a remarkable movie as well.


Russian Ark
was shot using high-definition digital cameras and taped directly onto a portable hard drive unit. The resulting video looks fairly well but with some inherent issues that keep this transfer from getting a higher rating. The video is presented in a 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio, and has been anamorphically enhanced for your widescreen-viewing giddiness. The transfer can be generally faulted for its softness. Some medium- and most wide-shot photography exhibit noticeable weakness in fine image detail. Close-ups and other medium shots fare much better, with more agreeable levels of detail and sharpness, but the overall look to the film is soft. As the film was digitally recorded, there was some noticeable breakup and slight pixellation during many dark and low-light scenes. Black levels seemed to be somewhat weak -- the trek throughout the Hermitage's dank basement and stone staircases probably represent the transfer at its absolute worst. That having been said, the brighter scenes seem absolutely vibrant, with more lush and vivid colors, stronger contrasts, and a generally more pleasing image.

Phenomenal. This DVD provides for a exceptional aural experience while experiencing this groundbreaking piece of cinema. Both a Dolby Digital 5.1 and a 2.0 soundtrack has been included, and while the 2.0 mix sounds generally pleasing and acceptable, the 5.1 experience is definitely the way to go. This is a smooth, enveloping soundtrack that provides a fully dimensional and nearly seamless soundstage. The score boasts a strong, rich fidelity that do the many orchestras scattered throughout this film proud. Surrounds are used often, aggressively, and appropriately throughout the film, highlighting audio cues, throwaway ambient noise, and audio images that drift in and out of the environment. Dialog and narration travel throughout of the soundstage, at various degrees of volume and intensity. Sometimes we hear with crisp detail what the characters are saying, and other times they are just out of reach, like whispers in the corner of the room that we aren't supposed to hear. LFE activity is used brilliantly, giving the film intensity when it needs it and softness when it doesn't. Simply put, this is a great audio experience. It is "reference quality" in the way it beautifully enhances and accentuates the overall feel, atmosphere, and experience of Russian Ark.

Producer Jens Meurer (who rather candidly admits that the reason he was chosen for the commentary track was due to his status as the only English-speaker of the main crew) provides a running feature-length Commentary, and it's an engaging and fascinating addition to this DVD. I'll list my only complaint first: his commentary is mostly of a technical nature. Meurer does not delve too deeply into historical annotation, or definitions and descriptions of the various scenes unfolding throughout the film. He spends most of the commentary discussing the technical issues and logistics that went into the creation of Russian Ark. Meurer details the incredibly numerous problems throughout the film's creation, lighting issues (Russian Ark was shot December 23 in 2001, on one of the shortest days of the year with an extremely small window of natural light), descriptions of various rooms in the Hermitage, set design, costuming, and hidden details such as the Christmas Trees that made their first appearance in the Winter Palace since the departure of the Tsars in 1917. While I would have enjoyed more of an annotation, this is nonetheless a great commentary track and is must-listening for those who wish to further their appreciation of the film.

In One Breath, The Making of Russian Ark is a forty-three minute making-of documentary that has been included on this DVD. Director Alexander Sokurov, producer Jens Meurer, and various other members of the cast and crew share their impressions of this groundbreaking, four-years-in-the-making project. The documentary also provides some much-needed explanation for those of us who aren't up to scratch on our Russian history. Even more impressively, if you ever wanted to know what kind of logistical and organizational nightmare it must have been to shoot Russian Ark, this is your documentary. I was constantly amazed by how much clockwork precision was required by this production. This was a nervous but more-than-capable production crew, and the documentary delves into every detail of the project, from rehearsals, choreography, camerawork, to almost every aspect that had to be coordinated to the very second.

Mon Paradis, Der Winterpalast is a forty-eight minute film by Elfi Mikeschi that explores the history of the Hermitage and its effect on the people in St. Petersburg. Staff and curators of the museum are interviewed throughout the film, detailing their love of the museum and discussing with pride how the population's collective passion for its works saved many treasures from destruction during the German siege of St. Petersburg. It is mostly shot documentary-style, and while I appreciated a deeper look at the Hermitage outside of the context of Russian Ark, I found it to be the least interesting supplement included on this DVD. It is a nice and moderately informative addition, but it isn't one I'd return to any time soon.

There are six-minutes of video Interviews with Alexander Sokurov, Jans Meurer, Steadicam Operator Tilman Buttner, Technical Supervisor Steffen Gorner, and Production Supervisor Sergei Ivanov. This is probably the "fluffiest" of the extras, as their informative yet brief comments seem like marketing sound bites interspersed with extended scenes from the film. The Filmographies section provides biographical data for Alexander Sokurov and Sergei Dreiden. Rounding out the supplements are the film's two-minute theatrical Trailer, Weblinks to seven web sites associated with the film, and the DVD Production Credits (which are accessible by selecting the Wellspring logo from the Main Menu.)

Final Thoughts

I keep throwing the word "experience" around when I write and talk about Russian Ark, but that's exactly what it is: a magnificent, dreamlike journey throughout one of the world's most beautiful museums as various scenes from Russian history unfold before your eyes. As an experiment, Russian Ark is a resounding success and a triumph of technical achievement. As a film, it is an intrepid and striking piece of work, a landmark of cinematic expression, and a bold and stylistic artistic endeavor. As a movie, it confounds and questions, evoking heartfelt discussion about its meanings and providing endless debate over various interpretations. As a narrative, it can frustrate. As a mood piece, it positively excels.

And as a DVD, it succeeds... mostly. I had issues with the video quality -- it's good, often very good, but not great. The audio, on the other hand, is a rousing success. A six-channel digital audio experience doesn't have to sound like the opening thirty minutes of Saving Private Ryan to be reference quality. As in the case of Russian Ark, this is audio to simply take in and ingest as you float along with Sokurov's beautiful imagery. The supplements are extensive and impressive, making Russian Ark one of the most absorbing DVDs of the year. Without any doubt, Russian Ark comes very highly recommended.

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Highly Recommended

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