Cinema isn’t purely ideological, and from time to time a film is bound to cross one’s path that impresses one as problematic in the extreme. Formally, Russian Ark, a meditation on Russian history, is as beauteous, as sumptuous, as technically daring, as exciting as anything I have seen, inside or outside a movie house. How many greater films, after all, have I seen in my lifetime? But Aleksandr Sokurov’s film, which virtually everyone seems to love (as do I), deeply troubles me, too. Politics, it seems, can never quite be divorced from history, and history therefore will be as you see it.
A 96-minute film consisting of a single shot, Russian Ark is titled to imply that memory is the repository of human activity and events. The invisible voiceover, supplied by Sokurov himself, captures the haunted state of historical memory; like Noah’s Ark rescuing life from the extinction of flood, the “ark” that Sokurov’s roaming, twisting and turning camera captures is the soul of Russia, its culture, preserved from the drowning calamities of Time. We witness the past before our bewitched eyes. The setting is the Winter Palace of the tsars, now part of The Hermitage, the voluminous state art museum in St. Petersburg that houses in its buildings art and artifacts from the Stone Age on. The film, therefore, is a journey into the past in a setting that by its nature infuses the present with the past. Using a high-definition digital video camera, Sokurov weaves in and out of various encounters, including famous personages, within these majestic walls and seemingly endless corridors, culminating in a massive pre-Great War celebratory gathering that poises Russian high life on the cusp of a kind of extinction, the metaphoric and political one that the 1917 revolution would bring on. The single complex, convoluted camera movement, coupled with budgetary limits, required all this to be done in a single take. The astounding result was then transferred to 35-mm film.
Russian Ark, then, is the rare feat of technical virtuosity that releases a store of the most heartfelt and profound emotion. But catch Sokurov’s film at a particular angle and its swooning nostalgia for monarchic Russia can be sickening. On the other hand, the tension that results between his formally insinuating and elegantly disciplining camera, with its detailing gaze and continuous movement as though what it records might last forever, and the final voluptuous mise-en-scène of the ball, a finite event, after all, that therefore predicts its own end, glimpses an extravagance that by its own nature provokes thoughts of the impoverished, oppressed multitudes that necessarily here escape the camera’s eye. Sokurov’s film may not be as simple as it seems, although memories of his anti-Soviet Second Circle (1990), a formally brilliant though disturbingly inhuman film, chill some of his Russian Ark to the bone. While that earlier film, heavily influenced by the bleak style of Andrei Tarkovsky, revolved around the death of a father, Russian Ark is, at some level, a lament over the death of Mother Russia. Some of us, more rationally, lament the end of the Soviet Union, grasping, among other things, that the fate of the United States will probably prove direly inextricable from that of its monstrous imperialist state twin (some of that shared fate is playing out on the world stage right now), an unmanageably vast nation that betrayed its socialist destiny by taking politically a different, totalitarian route—as indeed the United States has betrayed its destiny in favor of corporate rule beneath a democratic veneer.
Russian Ark is not the richly human thing that Sokurov’s Mother and Son (1997) is, but in many ways it’s more intriguing. For instance, there are the appearances of famous personages by way of Saint-Just, Emily Brontë and others in Jean-Luc Godard’s satirical-apocalyptic Weekend (1967). (Of course, the tsarist ball in Russian Ark owes more to the ball, during the time of aristocratic disintegration under Risorgimento, in Luchino Visconti’s masterpiece from Lampedusa, Il Gattopardo, 1963.) Among those we see are Alexander the Great, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Nicholas I, Nicholas II, his wife, England’s Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Alexandra, and a daughter of theirs, Anastasia, who, to be massacred along with her siblings and parents, nonetheless inspired the nostalgic fiction of her survival. (Is it possible, then, that Sokurov to some degree is dispensing irony in addition to his own brand of nostalgia?) A more continuing figure is a visitor from France who influenced Russian Marxists, the travel writer the Marquis de Custine, whose La Russie was published in 1839. Depending on your view of history, you can consider him an heroic presence, but Sokurov reduces him to a forlorn fool who misinterprets everything he sees in Russia by imposing on it Western European myopia.
Nevertheless, the Marquis helps bring continuity to the film. A larger contributor to this, however, is Sokurov’s own disembodied voice—not just in itself, but also to the extent (in a stroke of genius on his part) that this voiceover becomes correlative to the camera’s continuous, intricate trackings—Max Ophüls and Miklós Jancsó are two powerful influences here—and vice versa. The opening of the film indeed identifies the film itself with Sokurov’s grave voice: “I open my eyes and see nothing.” In effect, the film proceeds to conjure the past in order to populate this “nothing,” using historical memory for the (forgive the pun) restoration. Floating in and about all the characters, the camera—a device of the future—nonetheless passes each of them unnoticed. The cumulative effect is to suggest the insular nature of their lives, their obliviousness to the discontent fomenting in Russia, their obliviousness to what history is about to demand of them. At the end of the film, as the guests leave the palace after the ball, the camera, in front of them, seemingly endlessly withdraws—this recalls the back-tracking shot at the end of Ophüls’s Lola Montès (1955)—before moving away from them to record the wintry void awaiting Russia just a little beyond. Now it is we who open our eyes and see nothing.
Different people will be moved by different thoughts and feelings, perhaps; but few at this finish—or, rather, given the cumulative nature of the film, by this finish—will not be moved, utterly moved. (I am reminded here of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s description of God’s grandeur: “It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil/ Crushed.”) This is an overwhelmingly beautiful piece of work, and because of its haunted nature a deeply spiritual one. It’s a film about ghosts, after all—Russia’s ghosts.
For the film’s passionate, mesmerizing journey, Sokurov’s most essential collaborator is his color cinematographer, Tillman Büttner.
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