Movie Review: Russian Ark

by Joe Cooper

Russian Ark, and its exploration of the majestic Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, is a triumphant display of film's power as an artistic medium. A moving symphony of culture, art, memories, and dreams, Aleksandr Sukurov's groundbreaking creation firmly stamps its impression on the heart and mind.

The beautiful and expansive Hermitage, the former winter palace of the Tsars, serves not only as a sanctuary for priceless art (over three million items), but also as a reminder of three centuries of Russian history and culture nearly erased under Soviet rule. Thus, Russian Ark becomes a resurgent journey into national identity as well as an intimate tour of one of the world's most magnificent structures and the treasures it holds.

Guiding the audience through a myriad of chambers, from plain servant's quarters to spectacularly ornate ballrooms and galleries, is an unseen narrator (voiced by director Sukurov). To his surprise, what he discovers through each door isn't the emptiness of a pristine museum, but lively scenes, both great and small, sliced directly out of the grand building's past.

Nineteenth century servants in palace livery hastily preparing for a banquet, modern day art-lovers admiring the priceless Rembrandts and Rubens adorning the walls, and young ladies-in-waiting frolicking in the hallways are just some of the swirling events witnessed. These chimeras are then suddenly replaced by more recognisable and imposing figures as soon as the astounded visitor passes into an adjoining room.

A pensive Nicholas II, Russia's last Tsar, dining with his family on the eve of the fateful revolution, an angry Peter the Great berating and assaulting a failed general, and a playful Catherine II enjoying a private opera performance all meld to frame the Hermitage's importance as a focal point of Russia's rich past.

Propelling Aleksandr Sukurov's work to the status of masterpiece, along with the emotive appeal of Russian history and the aesthetic impact of the Hermitage itself, is the unique approach taken to make the film. The entire ninety-six minutes of Russian Ark is composed of one single, uninterrupted, unedited shot that winds through over thirty of the museum's rooms. It's an impressive technique, and a first in cinematic history.

The sheer scale of the operation and the time constraints faced further heighten the sense of achievement. Sukurov and his team, including an extraordinary twenty-two assistant directors and over two thousand beautifully costumed actors and extras, were granted access to the Hermitage for just a single day. After two failed attempts at capturing the marathon shot, success was finally secured on the third, as the winter sun began to set outside.

Special mention must be made of Russian Ark's single camera operator, Tilman Büttner. Not only does the German cinematographer, who shot the memorable chase scenes in 1999's Run Lola Run, expertly track each event in the film's seamless procession, he also lends his assistance to creating the film's moving quality. One particular scene, where a somewhat intimidated guide follows, hesitates, and then withdraws to watch a fur-clad Catherine II gliding across a stark, snow-shrouded courtyard is a stirring image, and an example of Büttner's consummate skill with the portable Steadicam.

Russian Ark is quite simply a film like no other. Thanks to Aleksandr Sukurov's rare talent and vision, what could have settled as a fascinating insight into the Hermitage Museum, also becomes an emotionally powerful exploration of a nation's cultural heart. An immense cinematic accomplishment, Russian Ark is an experience not to be missed. Five stars.

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