While going about their business, great artists often make monkeys of the people who write about them. Look at what happened to one chatterer, who not long ago was playing the critic in the New York Times. “There are two kinds of tough-minded, morally uncompromising artists in today’s film world,” he wrote, “those who want to make musicals and those who don’t…. Pre-eminent among the wallflowers is the Russian master Aleksandr Sokurov.”
Unknown to this monkey–me–the Russian master had just shot one of the most splendid ballroom scenes in film history. It’s the thrilling climax to Russian Ark, a movie that has absolutely no precedent, except for The Scarlet Empress, Gone With the Wind, The Leopard, Doctor Zhivago, the agglomerated screen translations of War and Peace and all other costume epics. Russian Ark sums up and surpasses these pictures in the sense that it’s nothing but feathers and pearls and epaulets and gold braid, music and color and figures out of the past. By cutting these things loose from the moorings of a plot–or even a single time period–Sokurov has allowed his sumptuous pleasures to flow freely, purely, without troubling you to remember which archduke is in debt to whose cousin.
But then, being tough-minded and morally uncompromising, Sokurov has also made Russian Ark into a haunted meditation on the disasters of history, and on our precarious efforts to rescue something from the flood. The melancholy that has pervaded many of his previous films–The Stone, for example, or Mother and Son–also seeps delicately through Russian Ark. It’s as if this picture wanted to hold still and be quiet, even as it launches into the longest tracking shot ever made.
Imagine a black screen, with no sound except for sparse, quiet, atonal music that sounds like someone’s nerves being re-strung in a neighboring galaxy. “I open my eyes and see nothing,” says a man’s voice in the darkness. “An accident. I can’t remember what happened.” Then, in a wan light that mutes the colors, figures appear in a small courtyard: women flushed with excitement, young officers laughing and hurrying forward in a light flurry of snow. The voice on the soundtrack remarks on what you’ve already noted: The costumes belong to the nineteenth century. But what is this place, the voice wants to know? Who are these people? The camera plunges after them, into a doorway, down a dark stair, through a confused hallway and up again, pressing on through the maze like the eye of the ghostlike narrator.
And for the next ninety minutes, this motion will never stop, as the camera eye wanders through what proves to be the State Hermitage Museum. No second camera will add its point of view; no cut will suddenly carry you into a different time or place. Russian Ark will turn out to be a single Steadicam shot, threading its way without interruption through dozens of different spaces and lighting conditions, while being threaded through itself by hundreds of choreographed performers. Some are in contemporary dress and some in costumes of earlier eras. Some represent historical figures (Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Nicholas and Alexandra) or nameless soldiers and aristocrats, while others appear as themselves: Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky, for example, or the artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre, Valery Gergiev.