Perhaps only a fanatical Russian filmmaker, steeped in a history as ruthless and magnificent as the nation's harsh winters and endless landscapes, could have dreamed up and executed such an audacious plan: an 87-minute, dreamlike journey through 300 years of Russian/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 to do 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, a 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 under way 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 Russia's imperial past make brief appearances, including Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Czar Nicholas. 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.
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"Sokurov wanted to give the impression that the film was unfolding with one breath," explains Tilman Büttner, the German Steadicam operator who strapped 60 pounds of camera equipment to his body and spent the next 90 minutes unhurriedly and seamlessly wending his way through the vast interior spaces.
Even beyond the question of the camera gear -- and 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 Russian history and a mere four hours of daylight in which to shoot the picture.
It seems that Hermitage officials could close the museum for only two days -- one day to set up the lights and one to shoot -- but in December, Russia experiences only four hours of sunlight, which means that the film had to be completed during that period. Nor was there any possibility of coming back the following day. Russian Ark was literally a one-shot deal. Oh, yes, and there was no opportunity for a full run-through by the filmmakers before the shoot.
Those without a good foundation in Russian history may become frustrated watching the film, as neither the historical figures nor their place in history is identified. Some viewers may become bored, finding the 87-minute running time simply too long for what is essentially a tone poem. But for those who have the tenacity, vision and romantic spirit required by this film, Russian Ark will prove a transcendent experience. It marks one of those rare instances when monumental ambition translates into extraordinary achievement. So audacious -- even mad -- was writer-director Sokurov's concept, it is surprising the gods didn't strike him down for mere hubris. The end result, however, is a film that is nothing short of a miracle.