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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Joe @ firstname.lastname@example.org