Russian Ark

Russian Ark (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Aleksandr Sokurov
viewed: 03/03/03 at Opera Plaza Cinemas, SF, CA

Russian Ark follows a surreal trip through time and the Hermitage museum in St. Petersberg, Russia, a dream-like meditation on Russia that documents the splendor of The Winter Palace. Narrated from a first-person perspective (the camera vantage tours the museum via steadicam), the tour also follows another displaced onlooker, the character of a 19th(?) century French marquis, played by Sergei Dontsov. The marquis critiques the museum and its objects, as well as the character of Russian culture. Numerous historical figures, spanning the four centuries of the museum’s existence, roam the galleries as well.

The narrator, who mumbles his broken thoughts, is never seen by the camera (the camera’s steady strolling gaze represents his own view). He is also never seen by most of the other characters save the Marquis, who also has a fluctuating invisibility to the events and people they are witnessing. They stroll quite like ghosts through the museum, which is filled with numerous other resurrected figures of history. There is little explication, as the intended viewer is perhaps thought to have a better grasp on Russian history than I do. Though it does seem that Sokurov envisions The Hermitage as a vessel (read: ark) to carry Russian culture and history through the centuries.

The film’s notoriety arises from its technical achievement (the film was shot in one unedited, flowing 96-minute take), a conceit that is employed at times to striking effect. The opening sequence, trailing a group of 19th(?) century revelers as the make their way into the Hermitage through back passages and narrow stairways, has a dizzying, dreamy sensibility. And at it’s best moments, the film feels much like an amusement park ride, one in which the viewer flows along a predestined track, drinking in all the spectacles but with no control over the event. That said, it is clearly not a “thrill” ride.

More a stream-of-consciousness essay than typical film narrative, Russian Ark slides between fantasy and document. Unfortunately, for one member of my party who attended this film, the stream of consciousness was not maintained…and he slept through the bulk of the film, even snoring briefly. The film is challenging in this sense, truly, which is too bad because I found it very interesting on the whole and have found myself thinking of it considerably since seeing it.

My son’s Russian day care caregiver, who didn’t like the film, told me that the translation was awful. I certainly felt that knowing more Russian/Soviet history would have helped considerably in comprehension, but I had to experience it with the faculties that I have, poor as they are. This lack of understanding probably added a lot to the induction of sleep for my companion and for me in the experience’s overall surreality.

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