“Russian Ark” (dir. Alexander Sokurov) is a 2002 Russian film recently screened by the on-campus Russian Club. The film follows a nameless narrator as he explores Russia’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The 96 minute film is shot entirely in one take solely from the first person perspective of the nameless narrator.
“Russian Ark” uses a number of devices to push forward its somewhat formless narrative. The Winter Palace functions as the titular ark, wherein it contains the identity of Russian culture across history. Various periods are superimposed on top of each other such that there is a kaleidoscopic shift in time and setting from room to room of the palace. In a sense, the Winter Palace is an amalgamation of itself containing its total historical context. Historical figures, including real life figures such as Catherine the Great and Nicholas II, haunt the movie, with most oblivious to the timeless nature of the Palace and acting only in their own historical context, and others imbued with autonomy and able to interact with the phantasmagoria. Much of the film also focuses on the art contained within the palace, and in part tells Russia’s story through it. The narrator’s movement through the palace and observation of Russia through this unique perspective is one of the primary driving forces of the film.
The film also uses an unnamed 19th century French traveler, called the “European” by the narrator and based on the real life Marquis de Custine, to further flesh out the film’s structure and perspective. He embodies typical Western European attitudes towards Russia, which often come across as pompous and condescending. The European accompanies the narrator for most of the film, and their dialogue gives differing views on Russian culture and history. For example, while examining European art in the palace, the narrator’s resulting modest boast of Russia’s sophistication is countered by the European exclaiming “Don’t forget it was born under Bonaparte…”
Their conversation in part seems to be aimed at similarly foreign audiences, where much of it can feel like an attempt to dispel any pretensions and misconceptions surrounding Russia. This is mirrored by the European’s initial disbelief and surprise towards the richness of Russian life being gradually replaced by an appreciation of it and eventual resounding approval. Though sympathetic to the traditional western achievements of Russia, the European comes to recognize Russia as a vivid culture all its own, both a part of and separate from the rest of Europe. Through purely Russian eyes, however, the film’s portrayal feels like a love letter to Russia, examining its highest moments and expressing delight in the various folds of Russian history.
The cinematography of the film is among its greatest strengths. The dazzling effect of the single 96 minute take cannot be overstated. The orchestration of it is impressive alone, where the camera will zoom in on art or small details in the environment so some of the roughly 2000 actors used can get into place and the tight ballet of shifting pieces can compose itself. Large scenes featuring entire orchestras and ballrooms full of dancers are performed seamlessly in the face of its all-in commitment. The result is gorgeous and natural, fully capturing the scope and sublimity of its vision. Costume designs are similarly immaculate and successfully set the tone for the changing periods and settings. The art featured in the palace also adds to the visual spectacle, as the film is not afraid to take time to revel in each piece’s beauty on its own terms.
“Russian Ark” is an awe-inspiring masterpiece. Its composition has the carefully structured yet fluid and panoramic weight of classical music, and its many historical nuances add a near bottomless amount of depth. It is first and foremost a poem for Russia, clear eyed and reverent of the spirit and resilience of the land, and singularly timeless in its sprawl.