Russian Ark (Kino Lorber, NR)

Russian-Art 75Watching Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark is like being a kid hiding on the staircase and watching an adult dinner party.

Russian-Art 500

Watching Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark is like being a kid hiding on the staircase and watching an adult dinner party—it looks splendid and mysterious, but much of what is happening is beyond your understanding. Well, maybe someone with a PhD in Slavic Studies would catch all the references in Russian Ark, but for the average viewer, a lot of what are probably very specific historical and cultural references are going to pass unperceived, and the whole experience just sort of washes over you in a dazzling sequence of costumes and music and art.

Don’t let that deter you — this is a fascinating film filled with amazing sequences recreating episodes from Russian history, filmed within the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, one of the great art museums of the world. The film’s intent and effects both remain oblique, however, besides raising interest in visiting the Hermitage, one unintended effect of this film may be to raise sympathy for the Russian Revolution — because the wealth that facilitated the creation of the Hermitage came from somewhere, and it wasn’t from the hard work of the ruling class.

Russian Ark begins with the narrator (Sokurov, who is heard but not seen) explaining that he suffered some unspecified injury and woke with no idea where he is, putting him on approximately equal terms with us. It ends with an abstract, charcoal-grey depiction of the sea, suggesting a meaning for the film’s title — an ark of Russian history and culture floating on the sea of history.

In between, Sokurov and his guide or companion, the Marquis de Custine (Sergey Dreyden) pass through many rooms of the Hermitage, observing historical personages like Catherine the Great and Nicholas and Alexandra, catching bits of operas and orchestral performances, and occasionally taking part in scenes reflecting everything from the last ball held in the Hermitage (in 1913) to the Siege of Leningrad, all the time blissfully unconcerned with niceties like chronological order. It’s shot in one take (the wonders of digital technology), which adds to the effect of being swept along by the tides of history.

I honestly don’t know what Sokurov is aiming at here — does he really think that the only Russian culture worth preserving consists of imitations of European culture enjoyed primarily by the upper classes? Or is he being sly, creating a social satire about a parasitic aristocratic culture? The odd nature of the narrator and his guide suggest the latter, but the entire film is so eccentric that the best response may just be to lose yourself in the experience in and not worry too much about making sense of it all. While you’re at it, take a minute to admire the work of Steadicam operator Tillman Buttner (he also worked on Run Lola Run), who is the real off-camera hero of this film.

The new Blu-ray release of Russian Ark from Kino Lorber looks and sounds great, which is essential to the experience of the film The only extras are a making-of featurette, “In One Breath,” and the film’s trailer. The featurette is thuddingly traditional, as a female voice-of-God narrator and various interview subjects fill us in with the (admittedly fascinating) details — ten buses were required to transport the cast, 22 assistant directors were required, it was 20 below when the outdoor sequence was filmed, and the fourth (and successful) take (the film had to be shot in a day; adding a “race against the clock” element to the production) was achieved as batteries were dying and the light was failing. Very nice, but what this film could really use is a commentary track explaining what each scene portrays and who all those characters are. Since that track doesn’t currently exist, watching the featurette first may help you get more out of the experience of watching the films. | Sarah Boslaugh

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