Last night I saw a 35mm print of Russian Ark at a special screening at ACMI, put on by Senses of Cinema. In a brief introduction by editor Rolando Caputo, he said that Senses was hoping to create a similar film culture to that inaugurated by the likes of Cahiers du Cinéma – one that not only supports critical appreciation of cinema culture and cinematic history but also contributes to its physical presence in culture. Senses already does in the form of publishing annotations for the Melbourne Cinémathèque; this promising series of screenings will hopefully see the journal curating its own program.
Russian Ark has been on the edge of my radar since 2005, when I started at uni and it was a constant point of reference for lecturers, tutors, and cinephilic peers. At its most obvious, Russian Ark is a point of reference for the long shot, having the longest held long shot in the history of motion pictures. For close to 96 minutes, Sokurov’s camera tenderly observes the interior walls of the Hermitage, flowing in and out of the dark corners and light spaces, drinking in the decor and inhabitants of the time. The historic Marquis, referred to throughout only as The European, a stranger, explores the rooms of the building, its galleries, its ballrooms, its passageways. By all accounts, Russian Ark spans three centuries of Russian history; this I cannot ascertain, and while I am certain it would add a depth to the entire picture, my experience of the film wasn’t lacking, even in spite of my misunderstanding.
The Hermitage Museum itself, as the old and honourable Winter Palace, is a place of true and awesome beauty in Saint Petersburg, surrounded by many other pieces of Russian grandeur, none of which are as great as itself. Russian Ark opens outside the palace, in one of these surrounds, and follows the Marquis as he follows others into the palace walls. An outsider, he can only observe, and any attempts to partake in official Russian business or pleasure is blocked. Almost always, but not quite. As he travels through the rooms of the palace, and travels through time, the Marquis observes events, relationships, families, affairs, political contretemps and wartime massacres; Russia has one of the most violent and tyrannical histories of rule in the world. He is an outsider, and so is the narrator—the man behind the camera, Sokurov himself and perhaps a ghost—and together they lead us through the Palace.
With a film such as this, an exploration of history and the identity of a country, and a continent, it is worth remembering the reflective essays of Susan Sontag. In On Style, she writes, ‘A work of art encountered as a work of art is an experience, not a statement or an answer to a question. Art is not only about something; it is something. A work of art is a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world.’ Russian Ark is most definitely a thing in the world, a work of art that displays, explores, and muses on so many other works of art, works of painting, sculpture, vast scapes of interior design and virtuoso architecture. And Sokurov’s vision, so finely photographed by Tilman Büttner, captures the scenery with a worthy elegance. Regardless of the greater historical and cultural resonances behind the Sokurov’s ideas, which are quite pleasantly blurred amidst the oneiric lull of the slowly drifting long take, Russian Ark is an artistic achievement of unparalleled magnificence for its time. Rightfully compared to the fluid, dreamlike orbits of Max Ophüls, Sokurov proves himself an equal master.
I don’t know to whom he was referring, but at one moment the Marquis says to a group of Russians, “Eternal people…you’ll outlive us all.” Is this the message of Russian Ark? In spite of all the travails of history, in spite of all its hardship and mortal challenges, Russia will survive. The Russian crowd leaves behind the Marquis as the film ends; a woman tells him they are going forward, and the Marquis replies that he will wait. “Farewell, Europe,” is her wistful response. She will go forward, and he will remain behind. Does he leave the ark? I can’t remember. Europe leaves Russia, “To sail forever, to live forever.” He opens the doors of the palace, perhaps those through which he first entered, onto a boundless ocean that is almost monochrome in the wintery landscape. Whether we leave the ark in centuries past, or in the twentieth century, one thing is clear: the Russian continent will stand on its own. An ostentatious ark, maybe, but one that deserves to live on. If it can create a film as wondrous, spectacular and breathtaking as this (a film in one breath, Sokurov says), then its truly worthy in our world.