"Russian Ark" (Alexander Sokurov, 2002; Russia)

"Russian Ark."
"Russian Ark."

The ultimate trip, a post-2001 space odyssey, Alexander Sokurov’s "Russian Ark" is the longest continuous take in the annals of motion pictures, a single ninety-six-minute tracking shot in which the invis- ible narrator (Sokurov) and a historical figure, the nineteenth-century French Marquis de Custine (Sergey Dreiden), accompany a lively group of dead souls across several centuries and through thirty-three rooms of the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg.

The narrator wonders if this unfolding pageant has been staged for him, as well he might. Some 2,000 costumed actors and extras, including a full symphony orchestra, rehearsed this unparalleled stunt for seven months before it was shot, on high-definition digital video saved to disc on a custom-built hard drive. A participant in the action, Tilman Büttner’s camera peers into windows and swims among the artworks. The terrarium effect is enhanced as people slip and fall on cue, sidling through the slightly wide-angle field of vision. One can only imagine the crazy minuet going on behind the Steadicam. (There were evidently three short false starts, then the entire movie was shot straight through, in late December with only four hours of sufficient daylight.)

A kind of human arabesque, arms folded behind his back, Custine skips and strides through the whispery corridors, recalling his previous visit to the Winter Palace and commenting on the half-baked state of Russian culture. The narrator mildly contradicts—and at times, defen- sively corrects—the caustic marquis’s remarks as they wander together through history’s backstage, glimpsing Peter the Great beating one of his generals and Catherine II watching a performance in rehearsal (and then frantically searching for a pot to piss in).

By its nature "Russian Ark" emphasizes the forward flow of time, yet the movie is blithely anachronistic and slyly a-chronological. The walls are hung with images of frozen tumult. A blind woman—later identi- fied as an angel—explicates a Van Dyck painting of Madonna and child. The marquis meets the Hermitage’s current director and complains that there’s an aroma of formaldehyde. Eluding an attempt to close the museum on them, Custine and the narrator stumble upon a royal pres- entation—emissaries sent by the shah of Persia to apologize to Nicholas I for the murder of some Russian diplomats—and catch sight of Alexander III en famille. When the pair open a forbidden door, a custodial worker reproaches them for treading on the corpses of World War I. (The Nazi siege of Leningrad goes tactfully unmentioned.)

Although the viewer may be only intermittently aware of the ongoing tour de force, "Russian Ark" builds in hypnotic intensity toward a suit- ably mind-boggling finale of the Hermitage’s last royal ball. (Although nominally occurring in 1913, the event follows Custine’s description of a Hermitage ball as a procession “proceeding from one immense hall to another, winding through galleries, crossing the drawing rooms, and tra- versing the whole building in such order or direction as the caprice of the individual who leads may dictate.”) For eight minutes or so, the camera circles around and threads between hundreds of courtiers dancing the mazurka in the huge Nicholas Hall. (The marquis joins in.) Sokurov can be forgiven for the inscribed applause as the last chord sounds in this crescendo and a sense of pleasurably exhausted melancholy descends.

"Everyone can see the future but no one remembers the past," some- body remarks. In a final flourish, Sokurov’s camera cavorts behind and—coming off the grand staircase—pirouettes ahead to gaze back at the exiting throng, revealing more and more people. History disappears into the Petersburg mist. The long day closes and the long take becomes its own meaning in this dazzling dance to the music of time. The narrator murmurs his farewell to Europe and yet, suddenly nostalgic, the marquis has decided to stay with the revelers. What, besides the movie, is ending? Is it modernism or museum culture, socialism or czarism, authentic Russia or bogus imitative Russia? Is it preservation or transcendence or the end of photographic cinema—which both preserves and transcends?

Does "Russian Ark" embody or derange a "progressive" notion of history? And where does Sokurov’s movie end? Does it leave us on the eve of the October Revolution (after a mysterious flash forward to the “forbidden room” of World War II) or in the Now floating on a digital sea of eternity?