Film Review: Russian Ark (2002)

Russian Ark (2002) plays out like a dream. But who’s dream is it? Before the first image is shown on screen, a voice is heard: “I open my eyes and I see nothing.” The source of the voice is never shown, rather the darkness opens up to the diegesis by way of the camera “opening it’s eye”. The assumption becomes held that we as the audience are the source of the voice and this narrator will be there to guide us through this journey. The camera awakens to an outside world contrasting white snow against the bright rainbow of the guests in attendance for some event. Women in elegant and colorful gowns are escorted by sharp-looking guards into a palace. The narrator follows cluelessly and as he traverses inside the historic building he continues to observe: “Has this all been staged for me? Am I expected to play a role?”

The confusion in the narrator’s voice is echoed by the audience’s reaction as we watch in confusion about what is about to ensue. This is precisely the effect Alexandr Sokurov intends to place in his audience; a feeling of confusion and bewilderment, similar to that experienced in a dream. The supernatural journey is enhanced by the filming of one long continuous shot, so that the point-of-view never blinks. Does anyone remember blinking in their dreams? This single shot, expertly sustained by Tillman Büttner’s steady hand, has since become the longest unbroken shot in the history of cinema. Watching the camera weave through the halls of the Hermitage at St. Petersburg, I felt a sense of nostalgia for a time that I was never apart of. Perhaps the camera is Russia itself traveling through memory lane. Different rooms and hallways are entered and with them different time periods as well. The different Czars to have occupied the Winter Palace—from Nicholas II to Catherine the Great—are intruded upon by the narrator and his companion, the Marquis (Sergey Dreiden). Together they travel through time discovering the history of Russia through it’s eloquent paintings and sculptures.

This all leads up to an exquisite ball towards the journey’s end where the color-splashed aesthetic that the film has thus adhered to is put on full display. The camera interweaves through the crowd, at one point leaving the ground and soaring over the dancers and the orchestra. This, of course, is supposed to be the last ball held at the Hermitage in 1913. Under the rule of Nicholas II, the country was about to enter the Bolshevik Revolution. This ball scene plays two roles, as on the forefront it’s an excellent display of the beauty we have been subjected to throughout the film. However, on the other hand it suggests a sense of irony in the elite being oblivious to the problems of the nation. The country is about to enter a revolution that will change the nation forever, but the rich and powerful have better things to do than worry about the lesser half. In the beginning of the film the narrator asks: “What kind of play is this? Let’s hope it’s not a tragedy.” However, the narrative of Russia seems to only know such an ending.

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