The Australian DVD of Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Russian Ark (2002)

10 Apr

It’s no wonder that my coachee EY, who is Hong Kong Chinese by birth, attained a Band 6 in the HSC Advanced English of 2005. Consider this unedited extract from an essay he wrote for me in January 2005 on the topic You are the keynote speaker at a conference on Journeys. Your speech is titled ‘Every journey worthy of this name is a transformation.” Write the text of your speech. In your answer, refer to ‘The Tempest’ and two texts of your own choosing.

In the film Russian Ark, Alexander Sokurov solely aimed at transforming the audience rather than characters on screen. Character are given so little screen-time, whilst the Marquis acts mainly as a guide giving characters a minor role in this imaginative journey. Instead, the film is shot in one continuous, unbroken shot, with the director commenting and talking with the Marquis. This technique gives us an impression that we are actually walking through the Hermitage and furthermore, makes us much more aware of the camera, whereas normally, films tries to draw attention away from camera to the “reality” on screen. Personally, I felt the film transformed the audience by giving them an appreciation for the artworks and a sense of nostalgia for the aristocratic lifestyle of old. In front of a Rembrandt, the Marquis meets a ballerina who “shares a secret” with the painting. The camera then pans into the painting as if searching it for the meaning of this secret. We, the audience are never told this secret, which is the whole point of artworks. Every paintings contains hidden memories and meaning that we can access to in different ways. It is through these poignant exchanges with characters which Sokurov manages to convey to us the importance of art. As for the nostalgic journey, there is a scene in the middle of the film, of a room during world war two.

The lighting used in this film had a greyish sepia feel which strongly juxtaposes the golden and bright lighting in the rest of the film. This scene shows snow drifting through the windows, empty frames and a man making his own coffin. After this scene, the film becomes more nostalgic as we realise the price of war on this way of life. We want to relish each subsequent scene which shows the splendours of different Russian monarchs—we do not want the camera to keep moving into different rooms and get closer to the end of this imaginative journey of the audience. In the last ballroom scene, the director says to the Marquis “Let’s go” and the Marquis replies “To where, I’m staying”; a line which reflects our own feelings. When the film ends, and the director reveals the Hermitage as an ark of human culture sailing through the tides, Sokurov seems to suggest that we must return to reality but advises us to keep an appreciation of art and history.

This was a rather inspired choice of supplementary text for “Imaginative Journeys”, but at the time I had to take E’s word for it as I had not seen The Russian Ark which had, if I recall correctly, a limited but very popular release in Sydney in 2002-3. On the then SBS Movie Show David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz both gave it a rare five stars. EY must have been using the DVD.

There are debates these days about how the new technology will affect cinema. In Russian Ark, director Aleksandr Sokurov boldly goes where no-one has ever ventured before by making a 90 minute film in a single take, recording from a video steady-camera onto a hard disk…. The result is incredible….. The film’s author whom we hear only as a voice behind the camera – Sokurov’s voice actually – finds himself on an historical tour of the Hermitage, the palace in St. Petersberg that houses hundreds of years of Russian cultural history. But this is a museum tour like no other. The guide, who is the only person to see the author, is a capricious French Marquis, played wonderfully by Sergei Dreiden, and much of the film is a dialogue between the two as they become caught up in intimate moments they literally walk in on, in the course of the film. From Peter the Great to Nicholas II and the last great ball ever held at the Winter Palace in 1913 the camera glides and caresses its way into history. This is a most amazing achievement. It’s seductive, it’s beautiful, it’s amusing, it’s a film suffused with a sense of loss, culminating in the guests departing the ball – people whom we know are doomed because of subsequent history. Travelling nearly two kilometres for the 90 minutes of the film’s duration, Tilman Buettner’s handheld steadycam visits 33 virtual soundstages, which had to be lit for 360 degree shooting, embraces nearly 2000 actors and extras, records live performances of three orchestras, including the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. All this while moving amongst priceless pieces of art. This exercise would just be an affectation if Sokurov had not imbued his film with a whimsical meditation on Russia’s place in European history. The film does have the occasional lull, but the effect of the whole is totally exhilarating and surprisingly moving.

Comments by David Stratton: An amazing achievement, both technically and artistically. The first time you see the film you’re overwhelmed by the sheer brilliance of the concept and the way it’s achieved, and you can’t wait to see it again to absorb the witty highlights of Russian history that unfold so beautifully during the course of this extraordinary trip around the Hermitage.

The Australian DVD from Madman Cinema, a copy of which I have from Surry Hills Library, has some unique extras: a commentary by Australian film theorist Dr Barbara Creed, and a lecture by art historian Dr Christopher Marshall. ( review here.) I haven’t played Dr Creed’s commentary yet, but I did watch Christopher Marshall. I found him a bit disappointing, I must say, though there were some worthy ideas there. Perhaps I was put off by his muddling Istanbul and Tehran, and a rather confused account of the Old Testament Ark of the Covenant. He is right in saying, however, that this is a movie that like all art invites us to inscribe our own meanings on it, though I tend to lean towards EY’s interpretation, as I suspect does Sukorov. There are more features, notably a must-see documentary In One Breath on the making of the film.

The following extract does not have subtitles, but is still worth viewing:

Someone comments on pippopaperopoli’s posting there: Hollywood you suck, hang your head in shame! Some truth in that. This really is an amazing movie.

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Posted by on April 10, 2007 in Cultural and other, Films, DVDs, TV, Surry Hills


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