NYFF 2002 REVIEW: When Mise en Scene Trumps Montage; Sokurov’s “Russian Ark”
by David Sterritt and Mikita Brottman/indieWIRE
“Russian Ark,” the new masterpiece by Russian director Alexander Sokurov, is an ode to the sumptuous salons and glittering galleries of the most fabled building of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg: the Winter Palace built for the czars in the middle of the 18th century. It’s also an ode to digital and the Steadicam, since the movie unfolds in one uninterrupted shot that’s more than 90 minutes long.
The spectacle begins when a somewhat bewildered time traveler — we never see him, but Sokurov speaks his words — finds himself wandering through the Winter Palace’s opulent rooms and corridors. Unsure of how he arrived (he mentions some vague, perhaps apocalyptic accident) or what he’s doing here, he somehow hooks up with a cynical French aristocrat from the 1800s, and the two men embark on a meandering journey through the vicissitudes of Russia’s turbulent past.
Together they witness large and small scenes from the country’s history. Catherine the Great races from a concert hall to a water closet. The last czar dines with his family, heedless of the revolution brewing outside. (“Were those gunshots?” a doomed Alexander III obliviously asks.) A blind woman wends through the galleries, savoring their exhibits in ways sighted people can only dream of. Servants prepare an extravagant buffet, warning the uninvited guests to keep an arm’s length from the food. Persian envoys apologize for a deadly contretemps in a ceremony that threatens to last for hours and bore its onlookers silly. And so on, until the film’s eye-dazzling climax, when an army of resplendent dancers waltz at the end-of-an-era royal ball in 1913, recreated by Sokurov with a loving care that Leo Tolstoy would have applauded. Contemporary reality also intrudes, most amusingly when the strolling flaneurs encounter latter-day officials of the Hermitage, greeting them with an insouciant blend of respect and impudence.
As each episode unfolds in a panorama of luxurious decadence, the invisible protagonist and his companion debate a wide range of social, political, and aesthetic issues. The bemused Frenchman displays a typical western ambivalence to Russian history, while the 21st century filmmaker alternately defends and questions the depth of Russia’s connection to its troubled and confusing past, and to the equally complex European past that has transpired alongside it in an intricate dance of mutual influence.
Sokurov’s decision to film “Russian Ark” in a single bravura shot gives the film a relationship with the mysteries of time — one of his abiding concerns — that’s almost unique in motion-picture history. On one hand, it evolves in the real, unedited 90-minutes-plus during which the director and his crew videographed it; on the other, it pores over centuries of Russian history spanning more eras than the Winter Palace itself.
On top of all this, “Russian Ark” continues Sokurov’s imposing project of flummoxing the rules of traditional Russian filmmaking — and its countless derivatives, including most Hollywood cinema today. He has been pursuing this through most of his career, following the footsteps of Andrei Tarkovsky, his aesthetic and spiritual mentor.
Silent-era masters like Sergei Eisenstein and Lev Kuleshov built a grand edifice of motion-picture practice on the notion (inspired by D.W. Griffith in some ways, Karl Marx in others) that montage is the essence of cinema, and the more dialectical the better. Sokurov is a mise-en-scene man, more interested in extended takes and expressive cinematography than the shot-to-shot impact of contrasting cuts. Russian Ark is a big-screen extension of the experiments he carried out most radically in his epic-length videos, “Spiritual Voices: From the Diaries of War and Confession: From the Captain’s Journal,” putting the ebbs and flows of unaltered time on the same artistic level as the historical and psychological issues he also wishes to explore. This aligns him with the aesthetic revisionism of more recent Marxian directors like Miklos Jancso and Bela Tarr, who embrace the material realities and paradoxes of human experience by sweeping them into single takes of heroic duration.
None of this means “Russian Ark” isn’t dialectical to its bones. Less a structured narrative than a visual ballet, the movie is at the same time fact and fiction, simple and surreal, fairy tale and historical docudrama, breezy guided tour and abstruse historical meditation.
To make it, Sokurov deployed more than 2000 painstakingly rehearsed actors and extras, plus the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra under Valery Gergiev’s energetic baton. Recorded on hard disk in high-definition format — itself a technical feat requiring innovations that Industrial Light and Magic might have quailed at — the movie is a triumphant example of a virtually unprecedented genre, the biopic of a building. Like the biblical ark, the Hermitage has carried a select group of inhabitants through diversified currents of time and tide, and Sokurov’s film relives its adventures on a kaleidoscopic scale. Russian Ark is a testament to both our fascination with history and our nostalgia for a glorious, decadent past.