So much focus over the years has been dedicated to the technical prowess of Russian Ark that its tenets as a tangible historical record can easily be overlooked. An entire film consisting only of a single 90-minute Steadicam shot through the hallowed halls of Saint Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum certainly invites ample attention to the logistical aspects of the production, but Aleksandr Sokurov’s 2002 masterpiece should likewise endure as both a dramatic reconstruction of 300 years of Russian history as well as a crucial glimpse into the nexus of cinema’s then-nascent celluloid/digital divide. In the decade since the film’s premiere, digital has become the primary means of cinematic production, but despite some individual instances of formal advancement, it’s arguable that no film has yet married the historical properties of cultural and cinematic evolution as seamlessly as Russian Ark.
Opening as a group of aristocrats arrive at the wing of the museum’s Winter Palace, which over the centuries has housed various permutations of the Imperial family, we’re thrust immediately into the film’s first-person point of view, observing this party of men and women as they proceed into a magnificent gallery of interlocking chambers and elaborate corridors. In a sense, the viewers themselves are the de-facto protagonists of the film, and as the eyes and ears of an unnamed narrator (voiced by Sokurov himself), we’re swept initially, and as if by intuition, into a procession of activity and incidental occurrences within the sacred palace walls. Our reverie, however, soon turns into a guided tour with the introduction of an eccentric nobleman (Sergey Donstov) known only as “the European,” a symbolic manifestation of the Marquis de Custine, a French writer who spent a lifetime documenting his many travels throughout 19th-century Europe. As our escort and sounding board through this bygone period of Russian antiquity, this mysterious guide would thus appear to be leading us through nothing less than a visual conceptualization of de Custine’s most celebrated work, “Empire of the Czar: A Journey Through Eternal Russia.”
And indeed, Sokoruv’s film resides in a similarly suspended state of perpetual rebirth and reconsideration. Along the way we meet a parade of notable figures (Catherine and Peter the Great, Tsar Nicholas I and II), catching them in moments of triumph, failure, intimacy, and celebration alike, against a backdrop of some of the country’s most glorious and unfortunate incidents, from the peace offering granted Nicolas I by the Shah of Iran in the wake of Aleksander Griboyedov’s murder to the cultural degradations imparted during the reign of Joseph Stalin to the Great Royal Ball of 1913. Sokurov’s societal saga, though told non-chronologically, concludes in extravagant fashion with the latter event, one of Russia’s last momentous occasions before the rise of the Soviet Union less than a decade later. This sequence, like much of the film, only more opulent in construction (over 800 extras were utilized in this scene alone) and celebratory in spirit, portends a future of progress and triumph that we nonetheless know will never truly came to pass.
At once reverent and incisive, Sokurov thus ends his epic compendium the only way an artist of his simultaneous faith and pragmatism possibly can, with a flourish of spiritual and aesthetic reconciliation. As the camera turns to exit the palace, histories having folded in and expanded on one another with breathtaking fluidity courtesy of cinematographer Tilman Büttner’s tour-de-force efforts, the once resplendent halls give way to an ominous oceanic horizon, an expanse through which we pass alone in a digitally enhanced aura of painterly abstraction. In an instant, Russian Ark’s title is rendered literal: into the unknown reaches of the subconscious we embark, our pilgrimage now complete, Sokurov’s cinematic covenant made manifest, forever wading between eras, mediums, and technologies, resigned to the fate of history to once again repeat itself.
Kino Lorber has brought Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark back into circulation, replacing Wellspring’s out-of-print DVD with a welcome new Blu-ray transfer. The 1080p rendering is a noticeable improvement: colors tighten up and are far richer, blacks are blacker, contrast is well balanced, skin tones translate much more realistically, while most of the digital deficiencies smooth out in the processing. There’s even a little bit more visual information in the left and right sides of the frame compared to the old DVD. Audio, meanwhile, is kept to a LPCM 2.0 track, which is somewhat unfortunate considering the 5.1 surround mix featured on the prior release. Nonetheless, the linear track is smooth and clear with the film’s mix of overlapping dialogue and swooning classical cues separated in discernible fashion.
We also lose some of the extras from the original DVD, including Jens Meurer’s commentary track and a lengthy segment of interviews. Luckily, the 45-minute making-of documentary, "In One Breath," makes the transition, and it remains a worthwhile behind-the-scenes look at the film’s production featuring interviews with Sokurov and Tilman Büttner, as well as a number of other members of the technical team. Also included is the film’s original theatrical trailer.
Still one of cinema’s great technical showcases, Russian Ark should likewise endure as both a dramatic reconstruction of Russian history as well as a crucial glimpse into the nexus of then-nascent celluloid/digital divide.