Plett on Film: Visual Feast

Filmed in one fluid take, 'Russian Ark' introduces audiences to the pantheon of Russian history

Posted: Thursday, November 20, 2003

Director Alexander Soku-rov's "Russian Ark" is a technical triumph: a visual fantasia that takes viewers on a whirlwind tour through three centuries of Russian history and culture.

Rating - ***

Starring - Sergei Dreiden, Maria Kuznetsova and Leonid Mozgovoy.

Director - Alexander Sokurov.

Parent's guide - Not rated.

Running time - 1 hour, 36 minutes.

Times -

- Friday, Nov. 21 - 7 and 9 p.m.

- Saturday, Nov. 22 - 4, 7 and 9 p.m.

- Sunday, Nov. 23 - 4 and 7 p.m.

Where - Nickelodeon Theater.

For the casual filmgoer, the ride can be difficult - even frustrating - but if given half a chance it's ultimately a rewarding experience.

Those willing to make the effort can catch the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council's presentation of "Russian Ark" at the Nickelodeon Theater this weekend.

The film begins with a voice-over. The narrator can't seem to open his eyes. He vaguely remembers an accident. Or perhaps that was a dream? As his eyes finally open, the film fades in on a blustery winter scene. A group of Russian officers are helping several young ladies down from a carriage. The narrator tries to speak with them, but the party is too busy running for shelter to answer. The narrator (and the camera) has no choice but to follow them.

Upon entering the museum, the viewer begins to feel like Alice entering Wonderland. The camera follows the officers down a spiral staircase. By the time the camera reaches the bottom, the officers have disappeared.

Thus begins "Russian Ark," a 96-minute tour through the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. The film, essentially plotless, was shot in one continuous take - without cuts of any kind - and involves a cast and crew of thousands.

During the course of the film, the narrator encounters a host of characters - some historical and others representational - that walk the halls of the museum like ghosts.

To the director, the Hermitage represents an entire world of its own.

The museum "is the whole history, the absolute living history of Russian and European culture," Sok-urov says in an excellent documentary accompanying the DVD version of the film.

The only way he could envision capturing this world was to "make a film in one breath."

He accomplishes this with digital video and a Steadi-cam operator with the stamina of an iron man. But the film transcends gimmickry, and the viewer soon becomes unconscious of the fact there aren't any cuts or traditional transitions.

To help give the film some structure, Sokurov has his narrator stumble on a mysterious man in black.

He is an 18th-century French diplomat named Marquis Astolf De Kustin, played by Sergei Dreiden.

Kustin is as disoriented as the narrator is. He doesn't know where he is and can't understand why he's speaking Russian.

Once he realizes he's at the Hermitage, the prickly diplomat shares his opinion of Russian culture.

"Your authorities don't want you to have ideas of your own," Kustin tells the narrator. "In fact, they are as lazy as all the rest of you."

The narrator retorts: "The tsars were mainly Russophiles. But they dreamed of (Europe). Wasn't the Hermitage created to satisfy those dreams?"

It is the interaction between the diplomat and the narrator that gives the film its sub-stance.

It's as if the two characters are engaged in a cultural duel. Over time, one gets the suspicion that Kustin isn't as contemptuous of Russian culture as he seems.

If "Russian Ark" is visually opulent, the dialogue is exactly opposite.

The film "contains simple thoughts expressed in simple words," Sokurov said in the documentary. "But they should evoke very deep emotions."

On the latter point, Sokurov isn't entirely successful - at least when it comes to American audiences.

To a viewer unfamiliar to Russian history or art, the film can be cold and inaccessible.

Some historical characters aren't even mentioned by name. It's hard to imagine the emotional impact of these images if one hasn't been steeped in the culture.

The film is further alienating because it doesn't follow traditional narrative. There's no good guy or bad guy. No conflict or resolution.

But there are moments of sublime beauty (when we see angelic children flutter through the palace halls) and moments of deep sadness (when Kustin realizes the age of aristocracy is over). For anyone who enjoys stunning visuals, this is a feast.

• Michael Plett is an Empire page designer, copy editor and film buff. He can be reached at

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