Russian Ark is a journey through the magnificent Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and through that structure’s past as part of the Winter Palace, the seat of the Romanovs. It is also a journey through the Russian soul, with all the passionate tumult and pain contained therein.
The film, from director Alexander Sokurov, who is best known for his documentary work, travels through time and place, and through the labyrinthine folds of Russian memory and history. There are encounters with the ghosts of Russia’s past — Peter the Great, Pushkin, Catherine the Great, Anastasia, Nicholases I and II. The viewer is easily lost along the way, even bewildered.
Like Dante’s journey in the Inferno, a pilgrim is led by a guide of superior experience and wisdom. The Virgil of Russian Ark is an enigmatic, batty European — he’s a Roman Catholic, a French diplomat, a citizen of the 19th Century, and a marquis. The pilgrim is a man we never see. He’s a Russian artist of the present day and he holds the camera — we, the audience, are also pilgrims, for we, too, are peering through that lens.
The marquis, despite the fact that he inhabits the century he is showing us, is an outsider; uniformed guards shoo him from most of the rooms he visits. When the camera first alights on him, he is as confused as we are: Where is he? Why is he speaking Russian? He never knew Russian. The elegantly attired women and their Hussar escorts of the opening scene are rushing off. Where to?
The 96-minute film was shot in a single take — a stunning feat for Sokurov, his crew, and the actors. As a result, it has a sense of volition, of sweeping forward movement.
As he proceeds, the marquis gains his bearings, and recognizes events and people here and there. His memory returns, and he begins to inhabit the past that is unfolding in fits and starts before him.
Sokurov, through the French guide, is able to explore the cultural tension between Russia and Europe. The marquis looks into the orchestra pit, remarks on their talent, and declares that the musicians are Italians. “They are Russian,” insists the Russian pilgrim. “Italians,” comes the reply. Russians, the marquis says, do not produce great works of art — they copy them. This continental divide between Europe and Russia, while always present in Russian Ark, proves to be less of an obstacle than the divide of time and shared experience that cuts the modern-day Russian pilgrim off from his own country’s past.
As he passes through splendid double doors opening out onto a resplendent arcade, the marquis wonders if this is the Vatican, or just a Russian copy of the Italian High Renaissance. Another set of doors opens onto a modern-day hall in the Hermitage, this one inhabited by doctors in suits and jean-sporting tourists. Suddenly, we are in the present day. The marquis meets the current director of the Hermitage, and carps about the smell of formaldehyde. He browbeats a young boy enjoying a painting: You can’t understand this painting if you don’t know Scripture, he shouts. There is a ceremony in which the grandson of the shah of Persia makes an official visit to apologize to Nicholas I for the murder of Russian diplomats in Teheran. We are told it will last five hours.
Throughout the film, people from various epochs swirl past and around the camera. The audience hears disembodied voices and whispering; now it is we who are the ghosts — unseen, misunderstood. We are ghosts of the unreal present; the past becomes authentic, true.
Russian Ark shows us lost worlds, before the taint of decline and extinction marks the minds and lives of the figures. A very young Anastasia, the mythical sole survivor of the massacre of the entire family of Tsar Nicholas II at the outset of the Russian Revolution, cascades through the halls, nymph-like, with her friends. Here is grandeur that has no sense of the coming destruction, joy that has no sense of the coming tragedy, life that has no sense of the coming death.
In this light, the guide-pilgrim relationship is reversed. Our Russian “cameraman” knows what is to come, and tries to explain the horror to the diplomat. When the marquis comments on the brutality of Russian tyrants, the pilgrim reflects, “You should have seen the 20th century.” After stumbling upon a debris-strewn room inhabited by a man constructing his own coffin, the pilgrim attempts to impress upon his guide the devastation wrought by World War II. “One million dead,” the marquis repeats, in a mystified tone, without understanding. It is too horrible to contemplate.
The final scene is one of the most brilliant and beautiful ever conceived in film. It is an elaborate ball — the last given by Tsar Nicholas II — attended by thousands of brilliantly attired officers, aristocrats, and leading ladies. The costumes are stunning and so lifelike that one almost forgets that the scene is staged. A symphony orchestra plays Glinka, while the officers and ladies dance the mazurka. For ten minutes we observe the structured steps of the dance. But the ball is winding down, and the enormous crowd files out. We make our way with them, slowly, down the stairs. A generously proportioned woman looks about her, commenting to her husband, “This is the flower of Russian officers.”
But the marquis hangs back, allowing the guests to stream past. The pilgrim urges, “Let’s go.” “Where?” “Forward.” The marquis shakes his head sadly. “I am staying here. What can possibly be better than this?”
Indeed. Now that he has glimpsed what the future holds, he declines it. We will not make that mistake again, he seems to say.
Russian Ark explores the deepest sorrows of man and civilization: how to preserve memory in change, gain in loss, and how to give up the past as time marches on. These sorrows are nowhere so pitched as in Russia. When Communism cut Russians off from their past, it starved them of the lifeblood of memory, and halted the natural process by which a people and a nation reconcile themselves to the past, and move on.
The title Russian Ark contains a paradox: Like the Biblical Ark of the Covenant, the box containing the two tablets lost in the time of King David, Russian Ark carries the lost artifacts of the Russian past; but, like Noah’s ark, the film has preserved cultural memory from the ravages of time.