DVD Review: Russian Ark
In the 18th century, Catherine the Great purchased a considerable collection of Western European artwork, the act that would lead to the creation of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersberg. One of the largest museums in the world, it centres on the Winter Palace, the historical home of the Russian tsars.
What am I going on about? Well, imagine someone said, “Hey, let's make the State Hermitage Museum into a movie!” Huh? Make a museum into a movie? Books, yes, plays, TV series, comics, radio shows, poems, historical events, even (no, please don't) computer games – but a museum? And yet, that is perhaps the best way to explain Russian Ark: that it is the cinematic adaptation of a museum: its history, its exhibits, its atmosphere, its purpose. Hollywood did something like that, and it was a trite kids' film starring Adam Sandler and Robin Williams. Russians did it, and it was visual poetry.
Following an accident, a contemporary Russian finds himself adrift in time and space. Outside the Hermitage in the 18th century, he wanders inside, finding each part of the museum at a different period of history. A ghostlike presence in these events, his only constant companion is a cynical marquis from Western Europe (Sergei Dontsov). Refined and reserved, the marquis is quick to put down Russian culture and its unrequited obsession with Europe, but he is also a deeply sensual man, unable to resist the delights of high culture.
Russian Ark takes the form of a continuous point-of-view shot from the, well, point-of-view of this drifting Russian, as he follows the marquis through three-hundred years of history, moving from the private moments of royals, to the silence of a communist museum, to opulent balls, to the Siege of Stalingrad. On the way, we pause to look at the paintings and sculptures, suffer the marquis' frequent distraction by 'unescorted' women, and get thrown out of a historical ceremony. I say 'we' because, although this lost (probably either dreaming or dead) Russian often shares his thoughts with us and the marquis, the style of the film unequivocally puts the audience into his shoes. I said this was a continuous POV, and boy did I mean it. Russian Ark was filmed in a single unedited take on a digital Steadicam. At no point do we cut away, spoiling the illusion of our guided tour through the history of the Hermitage Museum. As a result, a cast of two-thousand costumed actors and three live orchestras must perform perfectly, and an unfortunate German Steadicam operator (Tilman Büttner, responsible for the iconic shots of Lola running in Run, Lola, Run) is half-killed by having to lug his equipment on a journey of almost one and a half kilometres.
Russian Ark has no real story, plot or drama. It really is as if someone decided to make a film adaptation of a historical museum. The pleasure in watching, assuming you can do without the aforementioned story, plot or drama, comes from experiencing the history of the Hermitage: discussing paintings with the marquis, chasing Catherine the Great through the snow, watching an officer try to steal a dancing partner at a Winter Palace ball. Russian Ark feels as real as any dream - compelling, surreal and evocative.