This year marks the 300th anniversary of the northern Russian city of St Petersburg. At the heart of the city, on the banks of the Neva River, lies the Hermitage, one of the world’s most beautiful and extraordinary ensembles of architecture: the Winter Palace (former residence of the tsars), the Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage, New Hermitage and Hermitage Theatre. First built by Peter the Great as a Winter Palace, it was turned into a museum by the empress, Catherine the First. Having survived the October Revolution in 1917 and WWII, the Hermitage today is one of the most celebrated museums and its collection consists of more than three million items, truly an ark of Russian art, history and culture.
Russian director, Aleksandr Sokurov, has lived in St Petersburg since 1980. Filled with reverential awe and admiration for the Hermitage, he wanted to make a special tribute to share his vision with the world. Sokurov also believes that different periods of history share temporal spaces and that we all live a specific amount of time in a single breath. This concept drove his idea for a film to be shot, as it were, in a single breath, that is, in one uncompressed take. As it is impossible to record more than 12 continuous minutes on conventional film, Sokurov had to turn to video and German high definition specialists, KOPP MEDIA and Director’s Friend, for technical solutions as well as the very able assistance of cinematographer, Tilman B?er, of Run Lola RunÂ fame, who operated the Steadicam.
So the parameters for Russian Ark (Russkij Koucheg), a German-Russian co-production, were set. The Hermitage could only be closed for one day, hence a single shoot in winter with only four hours of existing light; 35 rooms that held some of the greatest and most fragile art treasures of all time, each of which had to be lit; 867 actors, and hundreds of extras and costumes; three live orchestras and 22 assistant directors; all of whom had to move as one with military precision. A nightmare could have ensued but it didn’t and what resulted is a single-take full-length feature film that mirrors the flowing of time accurately. We are invited in to share this hypnotic journey.
Sokurov had previously made a film which also experimented with place and time. The critically acclaimed Moloch (1999) speculated on the inner world of Eva Braun, alone at Bertesgarten with the Fuhrer. Russian Ark is a very different film, one where the central attraction is the amazing cinematography and the Hermitage itself as we are taken on a slow waltz through Russian history from the 18th century to WWI. It is not a film for the impetuous and may prove more than a little tedious for those who know no Russian history and are not used to watching a film with no characters, plot and not much action. Despite the yellow cast of the print, Russian Ark is mesmerising, a sort of meditative Russian fantasy, where you glide along with the Marquis, a French diplomat who speaks perfect Russian, played by Sergei Dreiden (Window To Paris), and who banters with an unseen companion, voiced by Sokurov. The film is a celebration of Russia and therefore asks and answers weighty questions about art, history and culture in the context of time and place. Russian Ark is a sumptuous visual feast which exposes both the soul of the Hermitage and Russian history itself.