Perhaps only a fanatical Russian filmmaker, steeped in a history as ruthless and magnificent as that nation’s harsh winters and endless landscapes, could have dreamed up and executed such an audacious plan: an 87-minute, dreamlike journey through three hundred years of Russian and Soviet history, told in a single, uncut Steadicam shot that wends its way through a mile of St. Petersburg’s stunning Hermitage Museum. The fact such a feat was technically impossible with existing equipment did not deter Alexander Sokurov, the intense Russian director best known in the United States (if at all) for Mother and Son and Taurus.
Sokurov, of course, prevailed — with equipment designed specifically for the film. Russian Ark turns out to be more than simply a near-miracle of filmmaking, however; it is also an astonishing work of art, an historical epic that drifts through one’s consciousness like a reverie. There is no narrative in the traditional sense. An individual from the present day, who is never seen by the camera (but voiced by Sokurov himself), finds himself transported to Russia, circa 1910. A Royal Ball is just getting underway at the Czar’s Winter Palace. The camera takes the time-traveler’s point of view as he walks through 33 rooms of the art-filled mansion. The only person in the museum who is able to see him is a 19th-century French marquis (Sergey Dreiden), who also finds himself mysteriously relocated to the Hermitage.
The two men converse in Russian as they wander from room to room. Figures from Russian’s imperial past, including Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Czar Nicholas, make brief appearances. The film culminates in a grand ball that finds scores of enraptured dancers waltzing the night away, blissfully unaware of the war and revolution that await just around the corner.
“Sokurov wanted to give the impression that the film was unfolding with ‘one breath,'” explains Tilman Büttner, the Steadicam operator who strapped sixty pounds of equipment to his body and spent the next ninety minutes wending his way through the vast interior spaces.
Even beyond the question of the superhuman effort it would take Büttner to neither collapse nor wobble, the film faced other, seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It had a Russian director who spoke only Russian, a camera crew who all spoke only German, 1,500 actors, 300 years of history, and a mere four hours of daylight in which to shoot.
Since Hermitage officials could only close the museum for two days — one day to set up the lights and one to shoot — Russian Ark was literally a one-shot deal. And there was no opportunity for a full run-through by the filmmakers before the actual shoot.
Those without a good foundation in Russian history may become frustrated watching the film, as neither the historical figures nor their places in history are identified. Some viewers may find the 87-minute running time too long for what is essentially a tone poem. But for those who have the tenacity, vision, and romantic spirit required, Russian Ark will prove a transcendent experience. It marks one of those rare instances when monumental ambition actually translates into extraordinary achievement. So audacious was writer-director Sokurov’s concept, it is surprising the gods didn’t strike him down for mere hubris. The end result, however, is nothing short of a miracle.