Russian Ark (Russian: Русский ковчег, Russkij Kovcheg) is a 2002 experimental historical drama film directed by Alexander Sokurov. In Russian Ark, an unnamed narrator wanders through the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg, and implies that he died in some horrible accident and is a ghost drifting through the palace. In each room, he encounters various real and fictional people from various periods in the city's 300-year history. He is accompanied by "the European", who represents the Marquis de Custine, a 19th-century French traveler.
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Alexander Sokurov|
|Produced by||Andrey Deryabin|
|Written by||Anatoli Nikiforov|
|Narrated by||Alexander Sokurov|
|Music by||Sergei Yevtushenko|
|Edited by||Stefan Ciupek|
|Distributed by||Wellspring Media|
The film was recorded entirely in the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum on 23 December 2001 using a one-take single 96-minute Steadicam sequence shot. Russian Ark uses the fourth wall device extensively, but repeatedly broken and re-erected. At times the narrator and the companion interact with the other performers, while at other times they pass unnoticed. The film was entered into the 2002 Cannes Film Festival.
On a winter's day, a small party of men and women arrive by horse-drawn carriage to a minor, side entrance of the Winter Palace, dressed in the style of the early 19th century to attend a ball hosted by the Emperor Alexander I. The narrator (whose point of view is always in first-person) meets another spectral but visible outsider, "the European", and follows him through numerous rooms of the palace. "The European", a 19th-century French diplomat who appears to be the Marquis de Custine, has nothing but contempt for Russians; he tells the narrator that they are unable to create or appreciate beauty as Europeans do, as demonstrated by the European treasures around him. Each room manifests a different period of Russian history, although the periods are not in chronological order.
Featured are Peter the Great harassing and striking one of his generals; a spectacular presentation of operas and plays in the era of Catherine the Great; an imperial audience in which Tsar Nicholas I is offered a formal apology by the Shah of Iran for the death of ambassador Alexander Griboedov in 1829; the idyllic family life of Tsar Nicholas II's children; the ceremonial changing of the various regiments of the Imperial Guard; people touring the palace in the present; the museum's director whispering the need to make repairs during the rule of Joseph Stalin; and a desperate Leningrader making his own coffin during the 900-day siege of the city during World War II.
A grand ball follows, featuring music by Mikhail Glinka, with many of the participants in spectacular period costume, and a full orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev, then a long final exit with a crowd down the grand staircase. The European tells the narrator that he belongs here, in the world of 1913 where everything is still beautiful and elegant, and does not want to go any further. The narrator then walks backwards out the hallway and sees many people from different time periods exiting the building together. As he watches them, the narrator quietly departs the procession, leaves the building through a side door and looks out upon an endless ocean.
The film displays 33 rooms of the museum, which are filled with a cast of over 2,000 actors and three orchestras. Russian Ark was recorded in uncompressed high definition video using a Sony HDW-F900 camera. The information was not recorded compressed to tape as usual, but uncompressed onto a hard disk which could hold 100 minutes which was carried behind the cameraman as he traveled from room to room, scene to scene. According to In One Breath, the documentary on the making of the film, four attempts were made. The first failed at the five-minute mark. After two more failed attempts, they were left with only enough battery power for one final take. The four hours of daylight available were also nearly gone. Fortunately, the final take was a success and the film was completed at 90 minutes. Tilman Büttner, the director of photography and Steadicam operator, executed the shot on 23 December 2001.
In a 2002 interview, Büttner said that film sound was recorded separately. "Every time I did the take, or someone else made a mistake, I would curse, and that would have gotten in, so we did the sound later." Lighting directors of photography on the film were Bernd Fischer and Anatoli Radionov. The director later rejected Büttner's nomination for a European Film Academy award, believing that only the whole film should gain an award.
In post-production the uncompressed HD 87-minute one-shot could be reworked in detail: besides many object removals, compositings, stabilisations, selective colour-corrections and digitally added focus changes, the whole film was continuously and dynamically reframed (resized) and for certain moments even timewarped (slowed down and sped up). Most of this was executed by editor/operator Patrick Wilfert under supervision of lead editor Sergei Ivanov on Discreet Logic's Inferno system and leaving the picture uncompressed, before being reprinted onto filmstock for theatrical distribution.
The narrator's guide, "the European", is based on the Marquis de Custine, who visited Russia in 1839 and wrote a book about his visit, La Russie en 1839, where he depicted Russia in extremely unflattering terms. A few biographical elements from Custine's life are shown in the film. Like the European, the Marquis' mother was friends with the Italian sculptor Canova and he himself was very religious. Custine's book mocks Russian civilization as a thin veneer of Europe on an Asiatic soul. For Custine, Europe was "civilization" while Asia was "barbarism", and his placing of Russia as a part of Asia rather than Europe was meant to deny that Russians had any sort of civilization worthy of the name. Echoing this sentiment, the film's European comments that Russia is a theater and that the people he meets are actors. The Marquis's family fortune came from a porcelain works, hence the European's interest in the Sèvres porcelain waiting for the diplomatic reception. At the end of the film, which depicts the last imperial ball in 1913, the European appears to accept Russia as a European nation.
In One Breath, a documentary about the making of Russian Ark, written and directed by Knut Elstermann, gives more insight into the single long shot tracking techniques and formidable organization behind the making of the film.
The film was not a huge commercial success, though as an arthouse film it performed strongly in many territories. These include the UK, Japan, Korea, Argentina, and especially the US, where the film remains one of the most successful of both German and Russian movies of the last decades.
Russian Ark is a German-Russian co-production. The film grossed $3,011,013 in the United States and Canada, with $3,674,735 internationally, for a worldwide total of $6,685,748.
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Russian Ark received high critical acclaim. Roger Ebert wrote, "Apart from anything else, this is one of the best-sustained ideas I have ever seen on the screen.... [T]he effect of the unbroken flow of images (experimented with in the past by directors like Hitchcock and Max Ophüls) is uncanny. If cinema is sometimes dreamlike, then every edit is an awakening. Russian Ark spins a daydream made of centuries."
Rotten Tomatoes gave the film an 89% "fresh" rating, with this consensus review summary: "As successful as it is ambitious, Russian Ark condenses three centuries of Russian history into a single, uninterrupted, 87-minute take." On Metacritic, which uses an average of critics' reviews, the film has an 86/100 rating, indicating "universal acclaim".
Russian Ark received the Visions Award at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival, a Special Citation at the 2003 San Francisco Film Critics Circle Awards and the 2004 Silver Condor Award for Best Foreign Film from the Argentine Film Critics Association; it was also nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, the Golden Hugo at the 2002 Chicago International Film Festival and the 2004 Nika Award for Best Film. In addition, Alexander Sokurov was named Best Director at Fancine in 2003 and was nominated for the 2002 European Film Award for Best Director. Cinematographer Tilman Büttner was also nominated for various awards for his work on the film, including a European Film Award and a German Camera Award.
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