|Courtesy of Kino Lorber|
2002, 96 minutes
Review by Joshua Handler
I have never, ever, seen anything like Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark, a landmark film and masterpiece of cinema. It's impressive enough that the film features 3 onscreen orchestras, 2000 actors, and covers 300 years of Russian history. Even more impressive is that the entire film consists of one take. The jaw-dropping nature of Sokurov and cinematographer Tilman Büttner's achievement cannot be underestimated; they not only pulled off an entire film in one take, but somehow made it completely compelling.
The film does not have a traditional narrative structure. It is told from the first person perspective of an unnamed, unseen person who follows an unnamed man, "The European", around The Hermitage through 300 years of Russian history. Each room represents a different period, but the periods aren't in chronological order.
It is not necessary to be familiar with the history presented to be mesmerized by Russian Ark. All that's necessary is a love of film or history. Watching a film like Russian Ark is the closest to watching a dream put on film that I have ever seen. Because the film is told in one take with a constantly moving camera, it begins to form a rhythm that has a hypnotic pull. The camera moves so smoothly and the action is so well-choreographed that everything becomes surreal.
Russian Ark is like watching a dance or a circus show. Everything feels so natural, yet unnatural. Everyone moves naturally, but everything is so well-choreographed that it feels unnatural. "The European" becomes like the ringmaster of the circus or the dance leader. He is Sokurov on screen. At certain points he looks back at the camera as if he is making sure we are paying attention to the spectacular achievement that we are watching - showing off in a way.
While the film is one take, there are individual sequences that are particularly stunning. At one point, "The European" decides to follow two people outside. A man tries to prevent a woman from leaving the building and going out into the snow, but she insists on going out and the camera follows them into a snowy passageway. The camera follows them a good portion of the way down the passage before they escape. This sequence is dream-like and illustrates the elusiveness of the history unfolding on screen. Each figure or period only stays in the film for a small period of time before vanishing or ending. Good dreams are teases - pieces of fantasy that last only for small periods of time before vanishing. Each scene in Russian Ark is like one of those dreams, making the audience crave more.
Everything mentioned before make Russian Ark great, but it is Sokurov's ambition and willingness to challenge himself at every step that take this film above and beyond. The film moves between rooms and floors, inside and outside completely effortlessly and watching a director consistently challenging himself scene to scene is entertainment in itself. The climactic ballroom scene has the camera gliding from behind the orchestra to the middle of the dance and out the doors. It is a scene that is dazzlingly choreographed and caps off a near-perfect film.
Overall, Russian Ark is one of the greatest technical achievements in film history and simply one of the best films I have had the fortune to view. A movie has never put me into as deep a dream-like state as Russian Ark did. It is truly a film-lovers dream and a movie that deserves to be viewed straight through on the biggest screen you can find. A review cannot do this movie justice. It needs to be seen to be believed.
Film Forum in NYC is showing Russian Ark through September 12. Tickets for the film can be purchased here.