PATRIOT MONTH #7: Russian Ark, by Alexander Sokurov (2002)

Type of Media: Film

I love museums. Museums get a bad rap for being boring, especially among younger crowds. “They’re big places filled with old paintings and slow, quiet people just looking at them.” Well yeah, that’s why they’re great! You can get lost in a museum. There’s no sense of time, no windows to let light in, no reminder that life is going on outside the walls. It’s just you, the company you bring, and art. If you’re wondering how I can have such strong feelings about museums, just watch Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s film Russian Ark, a movie that idolizes museums and their position in society.

At its beginning, Russian Ark is disorienting. The main character is an unnamed Narrator, and the film is shot from his perspective. He suddenly finds himself wandering around the Hermitage in St. Petersberg, as people in Russian period clothing who cannot see or hear him rush to find a party happening somewhere inside. The Narrator soon links up with a fellow lost traveler, a French diplomat from the 19th century who identifies himself as a Marquis and hates Russian culture. The Narrator and the Marquis wander through the Hermitage, alternating between looking at art and stumbling on events from Russian history. Aside from the pair wondering about how they got there and the French Marquis marveling at the fact that he can now speak and understand fluent Russian, this is a largely plotless movie. You may have questions about what’s happening, and those questions will not be answered. But there is so much to enjoy here that has no reliance on plot.

The most immediately remarkable thing about Russian Ark is that the entire film consists of a single, unbroken 96-minute shot. Unlike other experiments with “single take” filmmaking like Rope and Birdman, both of which relied on editing trickery to achieve their effects, Russian Ark is legit. The steadicam glides smoothly through the Hermitage, going from room to room as every actor and technician flawlessly hits their mark to create a seamless first-person experience. Just from a technical filmmaking standpoint, Russian Ark is a monumental achievement. Forget CGI-fests like Transformers, this is a visual spectacle.

Its first-person perspective means Russian Ark is like wandering through an extravagant museum with two guides, one appreciative and the other surly, and getting to know them. The Marquis admires the Italian and Dutch art of the Hermitage while admonishing the Russian artwork on the walls as too derivative of the Vatican. He drops in facts about his life, like how his mother was a sculptress who almost married Italian sculptor Canova. He becomes enraged when a boy admiring a portrait of St. Peter and St. Paul says he’s not a Christian, demanding to know how the boy can enjoy the painting when he doesn’t know how great the saints are from scripture. When the Marquis and the Narrator wander into a hall where the Persian Shah is offering an apology to Tsar Nicholas I regarding the killing of Russian diplomats, the Marquis walks out of the room explaining the ceremony will go on for a several hours and be terribly boring.

However, the Marquis is ignorant to the tragedy that often surrounds them. One door they open leads to a man building his own coffin during the Siege of Leningrad. The Narrator tries to explain the horror of WWII to the Marquis, but the Marquis laughs off the idea of a million people dying as ridiculous. Later they see Tsarina Alexandra shepherding her daughter Anastasia to lunch, telling the nun next to her that she thinks she hears gunshots off in the distance. The Narrator, but not the Marquis, understands that the two of them will be killed by the Bolsheviks in less than two years.

Blind to the uglier parts of Russian history, the Marquis eventually comes around on Russia. People from different eras come together at the end for a grand ball, at which the Marquis decides he’s staying. The Narrator exits and goes to leave the Hermitage, though instead of grounds the outside is just an endless, stormy ocean. The Hermitage is an ark in the chaos of history, keeping the beauty of Europe intact and carrying the echos of the ages. Even as the outside world rages past, inside the Hermitage it remains slow and meditative.

Fans of art, museums, and history will probably find a lot of like in Russian Ark, but this is absolutely a must-see if you are a film buff or involved with film production. You’ll be able to appreciate how much of a marvel the film is, both in the images it captures, and in the way it captures them.