by Ken B.
On December 23, 2001, a cast of over a thousand performers, under the leadership of director Alexander Sokurov and cinematographer Tilman Büttner, successfully pulled off one long take, an unbroken shot clocking in at over an hour and a half. Eat your heart out, Birdman. Through 33 rooms of the Russian State Hermitage Museum’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, a depiction of three centuries’ worth of Russian history and culture was acted out in that one long take, better known as Russian Ark. This is one of those projects were the method is a lot more impressive than the content therein. The idea is magnificent, and the results are the manifestation of pure artistic and technological skill, but the story that wraps around it is not very compelling or meaningful.
The plot, while we’re on the subject, concerns an unnamed European diplomat (Sergei Dreiden), dressed in period clothing, who finds himself in the museum, speaking fluent Russian. He has no idea how he came to speak the language. Conversing with an unseen companion (voiced by Sokurov), the diplomat wanders the halls and chambers of the grand palace, interacting with inhabitants, from the eighteenth to twenty-first centuries, and watching history unfold before his eyes, a fantastical journey where time changes from room to room unfolds, where sometimes it’s the modern-day museum, and other times the royal residence it was first designed for.
It’s astounding how precise the movie feels, considering such an effort must have been grueling to coordinate. But indeed, whenever Dreiden enters a room, a handful of people are there, on their marks, proceeding and conversing in exactly perfectly timed ways. The period costume when examining life of the 1700s is ravishing, with crowded ballrooms packed with swaths of color and glamour. Sokurov and Büttner say that the take which finally succeeded was the third one, after two attempts that were botched for technical reasons. Layer upon layer of detail is added throughout the 99 minutes, and at times Russian Ark resembles some elaborate abstract one-act play. But the question arises if it’s entirely possible that this movie can be solely defined by the means of some long cinematic play. I never felt a final power to the story, an effect to the building of dialogue or writing. Instead, attention was largely diverted to the shot, and the practicality behind it. And at times, that was it.
Does that make this a gimmick movie? I can’t see myself being nearly as interested by Russian Ark had it just been Dreiden scanning his way throughout the museum with normal cinematographic or editorial methods. There are clearly means in which Sokurov uses the story to jump off into historical or cultural asides, and they are credible, but really unremarkable, taking a criminally large backseat to the most noted aspect of the film. It’s a shame, really. But on the other hand, the movie can in no way be called a failure, as the fact that an approach this crazy could even be pulled off to begin with is absolutely astounding in its own right.
When it spins around in its whirling wind of time and space, Russian Ark is wonderfully realized and beautifully shot. Nothing can take that away. But I’m conflicted on whether or not this serves as basis of full appreciation of everything it attempts to offer. I just couldn’t agree with that. One aspect of the movie was overwhelming and another part severely underwhelming, and I feel like that works out to making the film as a whole as somewhere middle-ground in my book. An early line of dialogue in Russian Ark is “I open my eyes and see nothing”. Why, when it comes to pondering this movie’s impact on me, does that line resonate so heavily? In the end, there is the sensation of reaching out through the masterful tapestry that Sokurov has painted, wanting to fully be enveloped and wrapped into the atmosphere and universe within, and only feeling flatness beyond the wonder.