DVD Review Of Russian Ark

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/9/08


  Russian Ark (Russkiy Kovcheg) is one of those films more notable for the technical expertise it exhibits (or preens of) than any real artistic merit. It reminds one of Mike Figgisís 2000 film Timecode, wherein that whole film was supposedly done in four separate single takes, in real time. That claim was debunked by a simple watching of the film, and the film itself was notable for being a screenplay disaster. The four stories, which occupied one fourth of the whole screen the whole time, had volume turned up on one section while the others were backgrounded, and then switched, which made it difficult for the viewer to even stick with whatever tale he preferred. Technically, the film was a mess, and, as there was no real story, just a gimmick, the film bombed critically and financially. Russian Ark, made in 2002 by the infamously somnolent director Alexander Sokurov, has a similar gimmick. While not following four separate stories, it is claimed to have been shot in one continuous take, directly onto a High Definition portable hard drive. It also claims that it was shot over one day, and in real time. While not a technical film expert, I did notice several scenes where the camera passed over black spots, making it the perfect place for an edit to occur, so I tend to believe that the claim of its 87 minute single Steadicam shot are overblown, if not outright false, even though the filmmakers have stated that the completed, unedited film, was done on a fourth attempt by cinematographer Tilman BŁttner. It could very well just be a slicker version of Alfed Hitchcockís more clumsy attempts in Rope.

  But, even if wrong, the film is still all style and little substance. Like Timecode, it has an execrable screenplay. Here is its sum narrative: an unnamed an unseen protagonist (voiced by Sokurov, and viewed from his eyes as the camera) wakes up on a winter day and is astonished to be in the 19th Century. He wanders into Peter the Greatís Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg- which later became the Russian State Hermitage Museum, that nationís answer to The Louvre and The Metropolitan Museum Of Art. Whether this is a dream or a vision of the afterlife is unclear. The narrator has two companions- another unseen unnamed one, whose voice is heard, and a seen one- a French Marquis (possibly the Marquis de Custine, according to the film information extraneous to the actual narrative) who speaks Russian. He is played by Sergei Dreiden, and helps guide the two unseen travelers through the three dozen grand rooms of the museum. There, we see time flow back and forth from Peter the Great through Catherine the Great through the day before the deaths of the Romanovs through the siege on Leningrad, in World War Two, and back. Other Russian notables, like Alexander Pushkin, have cameos.

  Nothing much happens, although the museum looks grand, and the conversation is dull, forced, and full of pretense. The film ends with a grand ball, and at its end, the narrator leaves the Marquis, and, with his unseen companion, exits out a back door and into a poorly designed sea of frozen water, where banalities about immortality and the museum as an ark that houses Russian culture, are treated as deep, and the end is billed as Ďamazing.í Well, no. 2001: A Space Odyssey itís not, although much of the costume drama tries really hard for the feeling of enigma raised in the final scenes of Kubrickís film, wherein astronaut Dave Bowman ages in an apartment that is an amalgam of modernity and Renaissance features. Now, imagine that several minute long end stretched out to an hour and a half, but with even less occurring. Thatís Russian Ark in a nutshell; or even just what it sets out to be.

  While the feat of an uninterrupted shot is a great accomplishment, the actual camerawork is surprisingly rather pedestrian. Yes, there are a few quick dolly shots down corridors, and a few done on a crane, but nothing that leaves one in awe the way even a static Antonioni shot can mesmerize. Also, the single shot openings to Robert Altmanís The Player or Orson Wellesí Touch Of Evil are more impressive in terms of visual beauty (although Russian Ark has beauty- but thatís in its location, not the representation of that locale), even if not nearly as long as this filmís 87 minute claim. Even Alfred Hitchcockís Rope, while having even more obvious cuts in its Ďcontinuousí flow, at least had a great screenplay to work with. Russian Arkís screenplay, by Anatoly Nikiforov and Alexander Sokurov, is virtually nonexistent, and the dialogue, by Boris Khaimsky, is atrocious, save for one unintended pricking of the filmís own pretensions, where the Marquis states, ĎA terrible boredom will set in.í And how!

  The fact is that neither the unseen travelers nor the Marquisís jaunts are that interesting. Far more interesting are the whispered notions, the furtive looks, and the implications of subplots that are hinted at and quickly dropped. If we are going to get a sense of Russian history, should not ordinary Russians be included? Apparently not, for while Sokurov paid a great deal of attention to the gimmick of the film, its substance is very lacking. Granted, itís certainly not a bad film, but, like the music of Pink Floyd, itís likely better watched whilst under the influence. After all, what would this film be without its gimmick, or some external enhancements? A mediocre 1950s era travelogue documentary shown between features, and one that, despite its technical accomplishment, in terms of length and choreography, results in some poorly lit and muddy scenes, as a result of the transfer from High Definition video to 35mm film.

  There is also the feeling, watching the film, and even more so, listening the prattling on about the film in its DVD commentary with producer Jens Meurer, that Sokurov was trying so hard to make a film that was a masterpiece, as well as film history, that he forgot to master a good film. Ok, Russian Ark is not bad, and Iíll likely rewatch it, as a curio, but thatís it. One wonders what a real filmic master of the little moments, like Yasujiro Ozu, or a master of depth like Akira Kurosawa, or a master of ecstatic truths, like Werner Herzog, would have done with a project like this.

  The film is shown in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and the DVD extras include a featurette called Film In One Breath, on the making of the film. Unfortunately, itís all techno-bravado with little insight. There are also a few interviews, a trailer and weblinks, and a featurette called Mon Paradis- Der Winterpalast, on the actual museum. In a sense, this 45 minute film is more interesting than Russian Ark is, as well as being far less pretentious. In a sense, Russian Ark may indeed, in its better moments, achieve some Russian cultural relevance, but artistically it is pedestrian. Still, I would say see it once, if for the history and achievement- itís sort of like reading bad James Joyce. At least then youíll always be able to say, ĎAh, yes, Iíve seen Russian Ark,í when that pretentious pal of yours asks that at the next party. That neither of you will be able to say much else with zest says all you need to know of this film.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Feel The Word website.]


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