Talk about the crowning example of an arthouse film, shot in a literal arthouse–The Hermitage.
Russian Ark (2002) is an extended poem that haunted me into deciphering it. I’ll confess that I was the student in Poetics and Performance class who drifted into sleep for a few seconds, but waking up, I was astonished to find it was like waking into a continuous dream.
After much deliberation, Russian Ark reminds me of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.”
In Human Situation class, it was agreed that the poem was about the the overload of images and scenery, so much, that it’s easy to miss the other priceless details. Like Bishop’s poem, Alexander Sokurov’s film warrants rereading — rewinding and multiple viewings in its case (thanks Netflix) — in order to process the subtitles.
If there is an antithesis to “sensory deprivation,” it should be called “sensory overkill” in the purest definition. Luckily the film has a surreal anchor to escort the mind through. Such anchor comes in the shape of the tour guide-like figure, the European (played by an old but sprightly Sergei Dontsov), who waltzes onwards in the hallway, excited at whatever the corridor will yield. He’s the only entity who can interact with the POV ghost protagonist, who acts as a perplexed surrogate in the constantly time-changing environment. This protagonist seems to exist outside of time and can only watch from a window as the past and present occur before his eyes. This European exists as his only bridge between the on-screen world and the fourth wall he watches from.
It’s a mandatory requirement of film criticism to discuss the 96 minute Stedicam flow with no cuts (done in four takes). The film does not tease one destination but careens to the next room in a labyrinth of ballroom and galleries. It opens on the 1800s, but swiftly pushes toward a modern environment within the 15-minute mark, before reverting back to the ancient scenes. Sometimes the time period intersect with each other — the 1800s ball attendees sometime wander the modern scenes. There are brief intervals where the hallways appear to stretch into the infinite. There’re no dead ends, only more doorways and horizons.
To outsiders of Russian culture, such a premise might sound alienating. An American viewer will not likely recognize that the entire shooting location was the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Sometimes a figure like Catherine the Great is explicitly identified. But it doesn’t matter, even without clear dialogue and subtitles, there’s the atmosphere of reverence of cultures and figures that lived and breathed. Even if your knowledge of Russia is alienated, the film beckons you in by radiating its essence and unashamed of its unfiltered presentation of its past. There’s no historical context required to drink in the rich significance. It’s like a serene ride into a museum with no clarifying signs and the wax figures are breathing and living — and a jolly tour guide with his heart in exploring rather than explaining.
The only aspects of Russian culture and history I recognized was the image of the royal Romanov family and it had a special resonance with me. Perhaps it was because I was exposed to the Don Bluth animated Anastasia which kidified the Romanov history by basing itself on the conspiracy that Anastasia survived the massacre (and over-sprinkling Disney magic). We see clearly, the mother Romanov lamenting to a nurse. She’s worried about the gunshots outside. And she might be worried because of the sickliness of her son (“doctors are good for nothing”). She watches Anastasia play with her friends, murmuring, “they’re so light,” sensing the delicate nature of their living state. She, and the historical-savvy, know that Anastasia will not be romping and giggling for long.
In the same infamous Romanov sequence, the European playfully chases Anastasia and her friends only to stop and huff, “I can’t catch up.” That perhaps is the perfect sum-up of film’s themes. Can one catch up with the past? Sokurov certainly tried by setting up these reenactments of Russian culture. The sights may be based on recorded history, but the intricacies are the real mysteries. There’s no knowing what exact conversation transpired between Anastasia and her family during tea time. The rest is in speculation.
In a meta-sense of “catching up,” a filmmaker-savvy person will know the challenge of keeping up. The seamless cinematography would have to keep up to achieve the Stedicam shot. The set designers reportedly had to keep up with the timing to re-dress rooms for the camera. The actors and the hundreds of extras would have to remain poise and ready.
The film wheels toward its perfect bookend– a “finish line” of the Stedicam if you will–to close its entire one shot. It’s an image that evokes “forever.” No, not a cliffhanger, it’s quite an open-ended closure. It’s visibly the most artificially rendered shot of a film of staunch authenticity, yet it’s all the better for it, because it insists that we have more to create and live through. History may be behind us, but it lives forever, and we must cherish the past if we are to catch up with the future.