Russian Ark (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)
November 9, 2013 by Dennis Amith
“Russian Ark” is a film that is a cinematic achievement thanks to its 96-minute tracking shot but it’s also a unique film that will instantly captivate you from beginning to end. This is no doubt Alexander Sokurov’s masterpiece and because of its visual message, it is a timeless film now and will forever be relevant many years, decades later. “Russian Ark” is highly recommended and a must-own Blu-ray for the cineaste!
TITLE: Russian Ark (Russkiy kovcheg)
FILM RELEASE: 2002
DURATION: 99 Minutes
BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition, 1:78:1, Russian LPCM 2.0 Stereowith English subtitles
COMPANY: Kino Lorber Incorporated
RATED: Not Rated
Release Date: November 19, 2013
Directed by Alexander Sokurov
Written by Anatoli Nikiforov, Boris Khaimsky, Svetlana Proskurina, Alexander Sokurov
Producer: Andrey Deryabin, Jens Meurer
Assistant Producer: Larissa Maevokaya, Vladimir Plyatskovsky, Andrey Shatilov, Christiane Thieme, Tatyana Tverskaya, Alla Tyaglova, Alla Verlotsky
Music by Sergei Yevtushenko
Cinematography by Tilman Buttner
Edited by Stefan Ciupek, Sergey Ivanov, Betina Kuntzsch
Casting by Tatyana Komarova
Art Direction by Natalya Kochergina, Elena Zhukova
Costume Design by Maria Grishanova, Lidiya Kryukova, Tamara Seferyan
Sergey Dreyden as The Stranger (The Marquis de Custine)
Mariya Kuznetsova as Catherine the Great
Leonid Mozgovoy as The Spy
Mikhail Piotrovsky as the Hermitage Director
David Giorgobiani as Orbeli
Aleksandr Chaban as Boris Piotrovsky
Maksim Sergeyev as Peter the Great
Natalya Nikulenko as Catherine the Great
Vladimir Baranov as Nicholas II
Anna Aleksakhina as Alexandra Fyodorovna, Wife of Nicholas II
Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov (THE SUN) broke boundaries with his dreamlike vision of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russian Ark. It’s the first feature-length narrative film shot in a single take (on digital video, using a specially designed disc instead of tape). Russian Ark is shot from the point-of-view of an unseen narrator, as he explores the museum and travels through Russian history. The audience sees through his eyes as he witnesses Peter the Great (Maksim Sergeyev) abusing one of his generals; Catherine the Great (Maria Kuznetsova) desperately searching for a bathroom; and, in the grand finale, the sumptuous Great Royal Ball of 1913. The narrator is eventually joined by a sarcastic and eccentric 19th century French Marquis (Sergey Dreiden), who travels with him throughout the huge grounds, encountering various historical figures and viewing the legendary artworks on display. While the narrator only interacts with the Marquis (he seems to be invisible to all the other inhabitants), the Marquis occasionally interacts with visitors and former residents of the museum. The film was obviously shot in one day, but the cast and crew rehearsed for months to time their movements precisely with the flow of the camera while capturing the complex narrative, with elaborate costumes from different periods, and several trips out to the exterior of the museum. Tilman Büttner, the director of photography, was responsible for capturing it all in one single Steadicam shot. To celebrate the film’s 10th Anniversary, Russian Ark is making it’s Blu-ray debut for the time ever.
It is the film that captivated audiences for its technical achievement by creating a film with an unbroken 96-minute tracking shot through one of the largest art museums in the world, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Alexander Sokurov’s masterpiece, his 2002 film “Russian Ark” will receive the HD treatment as it is set for release on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber.
A film that seemed simple on paper was actually a complex film that took about four years to plan and involved nearly a thousand actors, the busy Hermitage Museum granted one day (December 23, 2001) for filmmaker Alexander Sokurov to film.
Featuring a production crew that would have to make 300-years of Russian culture and various eras look realistic in the film, quick removable additions would have to be brought into the museum and removed, technicians to make sure that lighting for every room was properly set, costume designers would have to create authentic costumes that would look realistic for the era, using gold threading to actual jewelry, makeup designers who would try to make various actors look like major figures from Russian history, featuring three orchestras and a smooth one take process that would last the entire 96-minutes, making it the longest one-track take in cinematic history, despite freezing temperatures outdoors and the challenges of trying to get all 96-minutes in one shot, knowing that time was not on their side.
In the end, the film required three takes and down to their last battery and cinematographer Tilman Buttner (“Run Lola Run”, “Hanna”, “The Reader”) having to bear with the pain of trying to shoot via steadicam and modified equipment to make the long-tracking shot possible (the film would feature the first uncompressed HD film recorded on a portable hard-disk system rather than utilizing tape or film), but it all came down to everyone hitting every mark and cue.
“Russian Ark” is a film that is narrated by Alexander Sokurov, voicing an unseen character who doesn’t know exactly where he is or what era. As he walks into the Hermitage, he meets a French nobleman, the Marquis (portrayed by Sergey Dreiden) and he follows the Frenchman through the halls of the Hermitage.
What we learn is that the Marquis has for some reason learned how to speak Russian but he also has an arrogance towards Russian culture and appears to be an erudite of European art and culture which he tends to be blunt about earlier on in the film.
But as they view the collections of Catherine the Great (portrayed by Mariya Kuznetsova, “The Italian”, “Dreaming of Space”) and as the camera follows the intellectual Marquis and the unseen character through 300 years of Russian history before the Revolution. Seeing the Marquis interacting with paintings, sculptures and various people of the era who show their passion and love of various paintings, sculptures, etc.
The viewer becomes a voyeur of various conversations but also witness a different Russia where culture was a big part of society and interacting with various contemporaries of that era. But also seeing the unseen foil often questioning and debating the Marquis about Russia forming its own culture.
The ghosts of people of various era of Russian culture appear with many others showcasing the extravagance of Russian culture and the viewer becomes part of the journey, seeing various people of significance in Russia’s past but also seeing people of today, such as Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage.
But as both travel through the various halls to see the appreciation of art and culture, pre-Russian Revoution (1917), how will the journey through the Hermitage for both men end?
“Russian Ark” is presented in 1080p High Definition (1:78:1 aspect ratio). Compared to the previous DVD, the main difference is clarity for various scenes but also seeing more sharpness in color but also a good amount of grain is featured. While those who are supportive of seeing more grain will be happy, I’m sure there are those on the other side who may feel the grain is a bit too much for their taste. Personally, I felt that the majority of the film looked very good in HD.
AUDIO & SUBTITLES:
“Russian Ark” is presented in Russian LPCM 2.0. Dialogue and music is crystal clear with no sign of hiss or any audio problems.
Subtitles are in English and are easy to read.
“Russian Ark” comes with the following special features:
- In One Breath – (43:31) A documentary about the making of “Russian Ark”.
- Theatrical Trailer – Theatrical trailer for “Russian Ark”.
When watching the “Russian Ark”, not only do you come away watching the film and feeling the uniqueness of Sokurov’s masterpiece but also an appreciation for art, culture and a era that is long gone.
In interviews, Alexander Sokurov has talked about making of this film, to showcase Russia as cultured people, to showcase what is possibly the largest art museum in the world that is in Russia but also an understanding of cultures.
In the case of the film, the Marquis who looked down on Russian culture and Sokurov as the unseen person, trying to make sense of the Marquis but having things to say about Russian culture through his film.
Before we discuss the film’s message and story, let’s talk about the technical achievement of the “Russian Ark”. To create a film that features a 96-minute unbroken tracking shot with no cuts is challenging but Sokurov and his crew took the idea and escalated it to the nth degree by involving anywhere between 1,000-2,000 actors, three orchestras, technicians and set designers, makeup design, costume designers to create the authenticity of an era that is no longer there but also to shoot at the Hermitage which is unthinkable.
Not only does the Hermitage house one of the largest collections of paintings but because Catherine the Great had so many pieces, for this film, they even allowed for some of her pieces to be featured in this film. It’s obvious that Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky knew how this is a once in a lifetime film as with the Russian government and military, but it all came down to delicate planning.
In fact, cinematographer Tilman Buttner had discussed that during his survey of the museum, he would go seven times a week just to see if it can be done. But also how he praised the equipment that was built for him to shoot the film that made the film become a reality but also, possibly the language barrier between him and Sokurov of shooting for hours with heavy equipment was taking a toll on his body. Buttner tried to explain it to Sokurov but the words were lost in translation and as Buttner has said, it was was a good thing because the most elaborate and extravagant scene of the ballroom dance would have never been shot.
The late Roger Ebert once wrote of how the film is a “glorious experience to witness, knowing the technique and understanding how much depends on every moment, we almost hold our breath”… I agree.
How they managed to pull off these amazing shots in a crowded space without running into people or anyone messing up by looking at the camera or tripping on a wire, watching the “Russian Ark” is a magnificent experience and if one has appreciation for the arts, not only are you draw into the film, you are captivated completely.
Yes, it is maddening for some that there are no cuts in the film but as many other filmmakers have created long tracking shots, nothing comes close to what Sokurov and his crew were able to accomplish.
Every actor and orchestra had to hit their mark, lighting had to work effectively, movements had to be natural and costumes, makeup and hair had to look authentic. This was a magnificent film that we do indeed hold our breath because we are not sure of its result during one’s first time watching the film and by the end of the film, you not only feel you watched one of the greatest technical achievement in modern cinema but also watched a film of absolute magnificence.
Now to the story, everyone will have their own interpretation of this film. But having watched it again, without spoiling the ending dialogue between the Marquis and the unseen man, we are aware that we are watching ghosts of the past that live in the Hermitage through various situations of Russian history.
We see Catherine the Great watching the actors of her film but seeing the beauty of the paintings and sculptures that she purchased and is featured at the Hermitage, we see various figures may they be doctors, poets, political leaders, but also a time of the Revolution.
And the question I believe that is posed to the viewer is that during Russian monarchy, during the era of Catherine the Great, she brought nobility to Russia. During that time, we watch as Russians were elegantly dressed, had a thirst of art, classical music and these ghosts of the pasts continue to live during a time of extravagance.
I am not an erudite in Russian history but I have read that about the uneasiness in Russia during the time the Tsar Nicholas II ordered troops to fire upon peaceful workers in demonstration in St. Petersburg and how these uprisings would eventually lead to the changing of the political landscape that would lead to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and lead to a Civil War.
The monarchy that had ruled Russia since 1547 would end when Ivan the Terrible was officially crowned Czar of all Russia and a new governmental system was founded on Communism.
But without becoming polemic and discussing the characters, we get a hint through the Marquis, that he wants to stay back in time and not move forward because he knows that the era that he just saw, the culture, the extravagance, people who were full of life will now heading towards darker times.
This film makes me think about what else Sokurov was trying to reach out to viewers. Was it a change of the Russia-then versus the Russia-now that he wants to be part of or is longing for? As we listen to the unseen character trying to understand the culture around him, he is displaced. Obviously a Russian not of the era as the others he is seeing before them. Men that are dancing, women in beautiful gowns, people who were of an era that was no longer there when the unseen character lived in Russia.
Possibly seeing how humanity has evolved and I think even people of today feel the same way.
I’ve often talked about how times are changing as the appreciation of having books, appreciating art and certain finer things of life are becoming more and more distant from the masses. Yes, there will always be people who will appreciate a good book, who will go to an art museum and stand at a painting for a half hour or people who will listen to classical music and opera but you wonder if Generation Y or the generation that will follow will even care about the past as everyone is more about the future of owning the latest technology and the days of art, appreciation of culture will no longer be about the masses but appreciated by the few.
As for the Kino Lorber Blu-ray release of “Russian Ark”, the biggest difference versus the DVD version of the film is clarity and better colors. Also, much more visible grain and for the most part, an improvement over the original release as the film was shot in High Definition, now it is released on High Definition. The soundtrack is presented in Russian LPCM 2.0.
The film is presented in stereo in Russian with English subtitles and the dialogue and music are crystal clear. English subtitles are easy to read and you get the 43 minute documentary of how this magnificent film was created and how it came about, but also learning the challenges that the crew faced during the making of this film.
Overall, “Russian Ark” is a film that is a cinematic achievement thanks to its 96-minute tracking shot but it’s also a unique film that will instantly captivate you from beginning to end. This is no doubt Alexander Sokurov’s masterpiece and because of its visual message, it is a timeless film now and will forever be relevant many years, decades later.
“Russian Ark” is highly recommended and a must-own Blu-ray for the cineaste!
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