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Aleksandr Sokurov: Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg) (2002)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers ©2003

 

Sokurov’s Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg, 2002) is a 96-minute-long tracking shot filmed with a steadicam held by the director of photography Tilman Buettner, whose excellent camerawork could be seen in Run Lola Run (Lola rennt, Tom Tykwer, 1997). There is thus not a single cut in this film. The camera follows minutely choreographed movements along a 1.5 km track with 33 sets of the 862 actors donning 360 costumes and masked with three buckets of powder. The filming took place on 23 December 2001, the shortest day in the year, in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, leaving just four hours of daylight during the polar nights for filming after two days of preparation in the museum. The film creates the impression that the uninterrupted journey through 300 years of history and 33 rooms of the Hermitage takes just one long breath. The sensation of floating through history is achieved by a sheer technical feat.

Sokurov compresses time. On the one hand, there are scenes from the life of the Russian tsars in chronological order: Peter the Great beats his general; Catherine the Great attends a rehearsal in the theatre; Nicholas I receives the Persian ambassador to take an apology for the murder of Russian diplomats, among them Griboedov, in Tehran; and Nicholas II has breakfast with his wife Alexandra and his children, including Anastasia and the hemophiliac Alexis. This sequence of historical events ends with the finale, the last ball in the Winter Palace in 1913. On the other hand there are characters of different epochs, rupturing the neat chronology of the Romanov dynasty: Valerii Gergiev, the conductor of the Mariinskii Theatre, conducts the mazurka from Glinka’s Life of a Tsar. Past and current directors of the Hermitage museum discuss problems of conservation, and worry about the authorities’ lack of understanding of cultural heritage. Contemporary visitors stand next to historical characters in the museum. Moreover, time passes at the speed of breath: the empress Catherine is a young woman during the rehearsal at the Hermitage Theatre; a few rooms later she is an old woman, running off into the Hanging Gardens to get some fresh air. Some rooms contain the future of the past: a room with empty hoar-frosted frames remind of the blockade of Leningrad during World War II when the canvasses were evacuated to Sverdlovsk (Ekaterinburg). The journey through the space of the past is a journey through time, but the two never intersect. History possesses chronology, while existing simultaneously with the present and other epochs. The Hermitage is an enclosed space, containing past and present, preserving the past for the future. It is the preservation of the past for the present which interests both the Hermitage museum and the film-maker Sokurov.

The Hermitage functions as the ark of Russian cultural heritage, containing one of the largest collections of paintings and the treasures of the Romanov Empire. In travelling through Russia’s past Sokurov aims to recreate its splendour. He draws, however, exclusively on that period of Russian history when the country was most exposed to European influences. He excludes the period before Peter the Great (the tsar who opened Russian to the West and founded the city of Petersburg as the ‘window onto Europe’) and ends his account with the last tsar, Nicholas II, excluding eighty years of Soviet rule and ten years of post-Soviet Russia. Sokurov refuses to see continuity from the Russian Empire to Soviet rule, as well as from the Kievan to the Russian Empire; moreover, he is not at all concerned with the politics of the time. Sokurov thus renounces the twentieth century as unworthy of depiction and lacking cultural value.

Sokurov guides his viewer on the journey through the Hermitage not with an authorial narrative, but through the character of the Marquis de Custine, the French aristocrat who visited Russia in 1839 in an attempt to find there a justification for an absolute monarchy. He returned to France a convinced republican. Custine’s account of his visit to Russia brought him success as a writer, while his harsh and cynical account of Russian despotism was banned in Russia. Custine finds Russia a terrifying police state, a country where people lie bluntly to the foreign visitor and erect a façade of splendour and entertainment to hide chaos, where the ruling despot is adored by his slaves, who live only to achieve salvation of their misery through salvation in death, where neither the church has any moral authority nor nobility any duties. Russia is a country that lacks a national identity, imitating Europe instead. Using Custine as prism for a view on Russian history and culture, we are invited to acknowledge in Russian history only those elements that are pale imitations of European culture and history. At the end of the twentieth century nothing of value remains of Russia. Russia without its European connection is void. Russia is neither part of Asia nor its master. The final image of the film leads from the ‘ark’ (Hermitage) to the sea (the Neva) – a murky, foggy, grey patch of marshland rises outside the entrance to the Hermitage:

Sokurov says farewell to Europe as he leaves the year 1913, and thus annihilates Russia’s history that ensues. What remains in the ark is the splendid past, eclipsing the horrors of the Soviet regime, but also the Russian art movements of the 19th and early 20th century. Having severed its links with Europe, the ship is destined to sail forever in the limbo between Europe and Asia.

While creating a masterpiece of technological mastery of time Sokurov creates an unbridgeable abyss between Europe and Asia, placing Russia clearly in a European context, of which it is a poor imitator, a chimera, a ghost ship. The Hermitage is the ark, carrying Russia’s cultural heritage; as such, it harbours vast collections of Asian, Oriental and Russian art as well as Western European art. Sokurov chooses to ignore the Oriental/Asian part of the ark’s content, concentrating exclusively on the parts that deprive Russia of its own/another cultural identity and bear witness to the imported cultural heritage from Western Europe.

 


Aleksandr Sokurov: Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg) (2002)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers ©2003

15/02/03