Issue 50 (2015) : Special Feature KiKu-50

Aleksandr Sokurov: Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg, 2002)

reviewed by Nancy Condee © 2015

A Return to the Museum: Sokurov’s Hermitage (Russian Ark, 2002)

Much has been written on Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark; in what way can a short essay—nearly fifteen years after the film’s release—make a distinctive contribution? I will avoid a glance back at existing research[1] in favor of two comments—one concerned with genre; the other, with Sokurov’s cinema language—on the ways in which those intervening years have enabled us to speak back to this film more clearly than when we originally encountered it.

On genre: the “museum film. The real museum, of course, has its own commonplaces: the sweeping staircase, the uniformed guards, the high ceilings, the hushed speech and bright lighting, the sparse furniture, the barren halls, the centrifugal push of paintings against the walls. Let us say for now that these tropes concern museums, not film as such.

All the same, the real museum imposes a certain attitude in films where the museum is the setting. That attitude cannot easily be set aside without calling attention to the attitude itself, even in a filmmaker’s gesture of dismissal (a common antidote to the museum’s solemnity). Steven Jacobs has written about museum films and their characters:

In films, apparently, museums provide a kind of harbour to people who are haunted, hiding or in transit: tourists searching for the commodified strangeness of the exotic; snobs, dandies and iconoclasts in-between high culture and mass culture; thieves and spies transgressing laws, secret lovers between moral codes and hedonistic pleasures; and characters haunted by mummies, wax figures or mesmerizing painted portraits between life and death (Jacobs 2009: 297).

At least five of these images—the haunted people, the dandy, snob, spy, and secret lovers—are explicitly present in Sokurov’s Ark. Still—for us—the usefulness of Jacobs’ description is limited here for one reason: Russian Ark is not a film set in a museum; it is a museum that Sokurov has set into a film.

arkIn this respect, it is useless to compare Sokurov’s film to (what might otherwise appear to be) related works. Is Sokurov’s Hermitage in Ark akin to Paris’s Kléber-Lafayette in William Wyler’s How to Steal a Million (1966); to the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in Fielder Cook’s The Hideaways (aka From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, 1973) or in John McTiernan’s The Thomas Crown Affair (1999); to Chicago’s Museum of Natural History in Peter Hyams’s The Relic (1997); or to the British Museum in any of its leading or secondary roles?[2] These films—strongly plotted genre works, saturated in crime, suspense, and reckless behavior, all preceding Sokurov’s 2002 film—bear no provenance for Ark, regardless of the shooting location.

What Russian Ark has clarified for us is a heightened sense of the museum as a self-referential object—the modernist “autotelic” might be a more upscale term. Because of Ark, we are more likely to bring a seasoned attitude to Frederick Wiseman’s 2014 National Gallery or Johannes Holzhausen’s Das Grosse Museum (2014, on the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna), whether or not either director would agree to this provenance.[3] Further, were it not for the time we had spent making sense of Russian Ark, Sokurov’s Francofonia (2015) might otherwise have been understood as a narration piece—a 1940 war drama between a Nazi officer and a museum director, with some painterly interludes and documentary footage.
Cinema language (ark, art, arc...). If Sokurov’s Russian Ark has transformed the ways we now watch the museum film—enforcing the site as an autonomous object, rather than as a shooting location for a genre film—then this work has also helped to render the director’s signature more distinct, alerting us to strategies for listening and watching his next work. In Francofonia, the sea captain—faced with the choice of either jettisoning his cargo of museum art or perishing with it in the stormy waters—is commander of an ark-museum no less than Hermitage directors Hovsep Orbeli, Mikhail and Boris Piotrovskii (Russian Ark), Louvre director Jacques Jaujard (Francofonia), or Sokurov himself, as director of his art work as a whole. For Sokurov, the captain’s destiny, like the destiny of an entire people, is complexly tied to two incompatible kinds of survival, which Sokurov would distinguish as physical and spiritual survival.

arkAnd if “ark” and “art” are corresponding keywords in Sokurov’s symbolic universe, then a third term—the arc lamp, whose apparent glare that makes a flickering appearance in Francofonia— reminds us of Sokurov’s love for technical challenges: in Francofonia, the arc lighting functions as a signal that we are once again watching art, not life. In additional to the (apparent) arc lamp, Francofonia is ornamented with sprocket holes and the sound strips along the screen; both devices fulfill the same self-referential function as its illusion of arc lighting, adding a layer of technical hyper-awareness that traces back to the technical virtuosity of Sokurov’s one-shot Ark. Taken together, these mechanical intrusions—the arc-style lighting, the faux sprocket holes and sound strips—remind us that film is not life; in Sokurov’s terms, the spirit is of a different order than the flesh. Film is one way in which humans, in the artistic labor of replicating earthly life, move closer to sacred life.

And, while we had already earlier encountered all this before—the ark in Mournful Unconcern (Skorbnoe beschuvstvie, 1987); the museum in Elegy of a Voyage (Elegiia dorogi, 2001); the art reverence in Hubert Robert. A Fortunate Life (Robert. Schastlivaia zhizn', 1999); and such technical preoccupations as anamorphism in Mother and Son (Mat' i syn, 1997) and Taurus (Telets, 2001), it is in Russian Ark that Sokurov provides us with the most coherent language by which we are able to speak about his cinematic universe with greatest nuance and fluency.


1] Among the best-known secondary texts on Russian Ark are Beumers 2011; Beumers 2003; Christie 2006; Kovalov 2003; Sirivlia 2002; Condee 2009; Szaniawski 2014.

2] These would include George Irving’s mystery The Wakefield Case (1920); Alfred Hitchcock’s crime thriller Blackmail (1929); Walter Forde’s crime comedy Bulldog Jack (1935; also known as Alias Bulldog Drummond); Jacques Tourneur’s horror thriller Night of the Demon (1957; also known as Curse of the Demon); Sidney J. Furie’s crime thriller The Ipcress File (1965); Fred Zinnemann’s crime drama The Day of the Jackal (1973); James Ivory’s romance drama Maurice (1987) and Stephen Sommers’ action adventure The Mummy Returns (2001).

3] I would add here our opportunity for our retrospective glance backward at Nicolas Philibert’s 1990 Louvre City (La Ville Louvre), now watched in the historical context of the later Russian Ark.

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Works Cited

Beumers, Birgit. 2011. “And the Ark Sails on …,” in The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov, eds. Beumers and Nancy Condee, 176–87. London: I.B. Tauris.

———. 2003. “Review of Aleksandr Sokurov: Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg) (2002),” KinoKultura 0.

Christie, Ian. 2006. “Russkii kovcheg / Russian Ark: Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002,” in The Cinema of Russia and the Former Soviet Union, ed. Birgit Beumers, 243–51. London: Wallflower.

Condee, Nancy. 2009. Imperial Trace: Recent Russian Cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jacobs, Steven. 2009. “Strange Exhibitions: Museums and Art Galleries in Films,” in Strange Spaces: Explorations into Mediated Obscurity, ed. André Jansson and Amanda Lagerkvist, 297-317. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.

Kovalov, Oleg. 2003. “Russkii kontekst,” Iskusstvo kino 7: 25–28.
Sirivlia. Natal'ia. 2002. “Glazami ochevidtsa” (interview with Svetlana Proskurina), Iskusstvo kino 7:16–19.

Szaniawski, Jeremi. 2014. The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox. New York: Wallflower Press.

Russian Ark, Russia/Germany, 2002
Color, 96 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov
Script: Aleksandr Sokurov, with Boris Khaimskii and Anatolii Nikoforov
DoP: Tilman Büttner
Production Design: Elena Zhukova, with Natalia Kochergina
Costume Design: Lidiia Kriukova, Tamara Seferian, Mariia Grishanova
Music by Mikhail Glinka
Editing: Sergei Ivanov
Sound: Vladimir Persov
Cast: Sergei Dreiden (Custine), Sokurov (Narrator),
Producer: Andrei Deriabin, Jens Meurer, Karsten Stoeter
Production: Ermitazhnyi Most, Hermitage, Ministry of Culture of RF, Egoli Tossell, Koppfilm

Aleksandr Sokurov: Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg, 2002)

reviewed by Nancy Condee © 2015