Russian Ark

Russian Ark/Russkiy kovcheg (2002 Russia 99 mins)

Prod Co: Egoli Tossell Film/For a Film/The Hermitage Bridge Studio Prod: Andrei Deryabin, Jens Meurer Dir: Alexandr Sokurov Scr: Anatoli Nikiforov, Alexandr Sokurov Phot: Tilman Büttner Ed: Stefan Ciupek, Sergei Ivanov, Betina Kuntzsch Art Dir: Natalya Kochergina, Yelena Zhukova Mus: Sergei Yevtushenko

Cast: Sergei Dreiden, Mariya Kuznetsova, Leonid Mozgovoy, Mikhail Piotrovsky, David Giorgobiani, Aleksandr Chaban

Following on from Goethe’s famous observation that “architecture is frozen music”, Raymond Durgnat has argued that cinema is “unfrozen architecture”: “When the camera moves, the roofline flows past us like a river. The camera tilts rapidly up, and banister and staircase cascade down.” (1)

However, the camera, Durgnat argues, “explodes architecture” because of its ability to distort scale. The latter emphasis on the camera almost as mutilator could not be further from the reverence, the child-like wonder with which Alexandr Sokurov approaches the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, the setting of his monumental film Russian Ark/Russkiy kovcheg.

The film’s sheer scale and ambition elicited gasps of awe upon its release in 2002. Four years in development, it was the first feature to be shot in one continuous, HD Steadicam shot covering more than one and a half kilometres. Utilising more than 850 professional actors, 1000 extras and spanning three centuries of Russian history, the film is set in a museum which holds several million artworks. Russian Ark was, as Sokurov has stated, an attempt to make a film “in one breath”.

The film’s narrative drive comes from the relationship between the off-screen Russian narrator (Sokurov himself) and the on-screen Marquis Astolphe de Custine (Sergei Dreiden), a 19th century French diplomat. Custine, in his inflexible conviction of the supremacy of Western European art over that of Russia, is the often-cynical guide to the 33 opulent salons of the Hermitage (which, before 1917, was of course the Winter Palace). As the camera moves through the museum, the director recreates critical moments in Russian history, introducing historical figures such as Catherine the Great, Peter I (the founder of St Petersburg in 1703) and Tsar Nicholas II.

Charlotte Garson has rightly observed that the film, as an extended plan-séquence, has its aesthetic antecedents in such films as those of Miklos Jancsò, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and the cinema of Max Ophuls. Garson tantalisingly speculates on how, with access to Sokurov’s technology, these directors would have undoubtedly relished the opportunity of composing an entire feature in a single extended sweep of the camera. However, for Sukurov, the technique is no gimmick, no “vain formal feat” or “supplementary aesthetic trump card” (2) – it is the very essence of the film. It could be argued that the key relationship of Russian Ark is not that between the narrator and the Marquis but that between the camera and the Hermitage. The film’s mise en scène is the living culture of Russian and European history.

Of the directors cited above, I would argue that camera movement in Sokurov’s film comes closest to the feathery, ethereal glide of Ophuls, indeed many references are made in Sokurov’s film to floating, birds and flying. One passage near the beginning of the film, moving left to right outside a succession of windows recalls the opening sequence of “Le Maison Tellier”, the central story in Le Plaisir (1952), Ophuls’ adaptation of three stories by Guy de Maupassant. Decidedly Ophulsian too, is Sokurov’s frequent subjugation of camera movement to actors. In the densely populated ceremonial scenes or the climactic ball, the movement of Tilman Büttner’s steadicam, whether moving along tightly regimented columns of soldiers or weaving amongst dancers, is never intrusive – characters swirl around the camera unencumbered. However, whilst Ophuls’ camera at times takes flight (and, as Kubrick famously exclaimed, “moves through walls”), Sokurov’s gaze can be more closely likened to that of a child – free certainly, insatiably curious, but also cautious, often coming close to being a Deleuzian seer. On the opening of each salon door, the camera hovers in wide-eyed anticipation. Each opening is a revelation and none more so than the door opening into “1917” and leading to the introduction of Anastasia and her sisters, one of the film’s most joyous, exhilarating passages. The Marquis shoos, then playfully runs after the children. Passing an exhausted Custine, the camera too careers breathlessly after them (3). As a snapshot of the twilight of the Romanov dynasty, it is unmistakeably Viscontian in its elegiac quality.

The relationship between Custine and the narrator is one whose dynamic shifts as regularly as the film’s diegesis shifts in space and time. The Marquis is first presented almost as a Nosferatu-like figure emerging from the shadows. Wiry, pallid, hunched and clad in black with sprigs of grey hair he becomes an irascible, laconic guide to the treasures of the Hermitage. His teacherly status is abruptly reversed when he arrives at a cold, colourless salon, filled with dust and empty frames – we are now in the time of World War II. A bewildered Marquis is warned by the narrator not to enter but he does so nonetheless, encountering a museum worker in a room depicting the hardship imposed on the Russian people and its culture during the siege of Leningrad (4).

Tim Harte has observed that Custine “has gotten a stark glimpse of the mortality that contrasts with the film’s earlier evocations of the eternal within the ubiquitous ‘living’ frames featured elsewhere in the museum” (5). It is the narrator now who has to provide a history lesson for the Marquis. Apart from this wartime segment, it is interesting to note that there almost nothing in the film on the Soviet era, with no mention of figures such as Lenin or Stalin.

Somewhat predictably for a film whose visuals are so spectacular, the film’s sound design has been largely neglected in critical writings. There can surely be little doubt that the meticulous visual choreography is also matched by the aural. After the opening titles, and before a fade-in allows the camera to begin its flight, Sokurov introduces his narrator in complete darkness, with gusts of wind whistling on the soundtrack. The director’s own delivery is akin to that of one who has awoken from deep sleep in a state of bewilderment: “Where am I? Where are they rushing to? Has this all been staged for me? Am I expected to play a role?” If we return to the motif of the child, this emergence from darkness is of course akin to birth.

As the camera progresses through the Hermitage, the soundtrack is peppered by whispers, chatter and hushed laughter from a plethora of characters. But constant throughout the film is an audible breathing – presumably of the narrator – symbolic of a culture that is living, a culture “destined to sail forever”.


  1. Raymond Durgnat, Durgnat on Film, Faber and Faber, London, 1976, p. 98.
  2. Charlotte Garson, “L’Arche russe (Russian Ark)”, Cinéma, Etudes no. 398, 2003/4, p. 541 (My translation).
  3. Here, Director of Photography (and Steadicam operator) Büttner comes close to some of the high energy movement he became famous for in Tom Tykwer’s Lola rennt (Run Lola Run, 1998).
  4. As Tim Harte has noted, “the scene alludes to the cannibalism that occurred in Leningrad during the 900-day blockade of the city […] the worker approaches [the Marquis] as if sizing him up for consumption”. Harte, “A Visit to the Museum: Alexandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark and the Framing of the Eternal”, Slavic Review vol. 64, no. 1, Spring 2005, pp. 57-58.
  5. Harte, p. 57.

About The Author

Pasquale Iannone teaches Film Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He is also a critic and broadcaster, regularly contributing to Sight & Sound and various BBC Radio programmes.

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