Despite an undeniable attraction to the majestic, Aleksandr Sokurov seems equally adverse to straightforward spectacle, approaching potentially colossal subjects from odd, specific angles. From his tetralogy on power to his glacially paced documentary portraits, he’s established a signature system of routine reduction, whittling massive figures and events down to misshapen curios, using long takes, spare dialogue, and a stubborn lack of drama to freeze them within his own specific realm. None of these acts is perhaps as perverse as the diminishment that takes places in Russian Ark, which beyond its mass digestion of 300 years of Russian history also has its own unique tag, filmed in one continuous 96-minute shot. This stunt decision, combined with a cast of thousands and a grandiose palace setting, seems to promise an epic approach, yet Sokurov’s methods are as contrary as ever, resulting in a populist, ground-level hallucination which burrows into the manifold mysteries and variables of history.
Shot and set entirely within St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace, the film opens with little fanfare, shoving past a crowd of soldiers, through a door, and up a staircase. The presentation remains obscure from here on, buoyant Steadicam traipsing through one room after another, each occupying a discrete point in time, with seemingly no linear connection between them. Establishing the camera as our fixed POV, Sokurov assigns this viewpoint to a disembodied ghost, a man who’s died and been transported to this timeless netherworld. He’s guided through the action by Marquis de Custine, a 19th-century French noble who manifests just as mysteriously, puzzled at his sudden ability to speak Russian. Custine supplies some historical shading, but his comments are generally more perplexing than helpful, as the odd duo progresses from one fly-on-the-wall scenario to another, viewing historical events that took place within the palace, poring over paintings from its massive collection for additional background.
It’s easy to imagine how a less eccentric filmmaker might have approached such a meaty piece of historical fiction, opting for a chronological arrangement of scenes, constructing staged dioramas to represent key events. Sokurov, while not totally abnegating the pleasures of such dramatization, never fully indulges them either, granting only fleeting glimpses of famous figures or recognizable moments. As always, mystification remains his most consistent touchstone, and like much of his work, Russian Ark employs sensory confusion as a means of narrowing focus, recontexualizing the way we imagine both filmic space and the historic occurrences it conveys. The filmmaker often bases such disorientation around a program of deprivation, holding shots for minutes while denying key details, toying with frame and focus. Here, it’s the opposite, with too much information and too little context, forcing us to instead focus on the flow of bodies, the separation sown by so many circling images. The final result lands somewhere between Dante’s Inferno, with Custine acting as the Virgilian guide, the slipstream transference of Midnight in Paris, and the weirdest amusement park ride of all time.
All this gets contained in that famous single shot, which overcomes its stunt status by serving as an insistently self-defeating way to present this material, forsaking measured setups for choreographed movements founded on tightly reined turmoil. This is a film whose treatment of history is more geared toward sensation than explanation, and it therefore benefits greatly from the sense of artificiality that pervades, making the past both intensely vivid and as fragile as a puff of smoke, vanishing when directly engaged. There’s a motif of characters running away from the camera, be it Catherine II departing with a servant across a snowy courtyard or of Anastasia and friends dashing off like a flock of exotic birds. These instances link up to the repeated impenetrable tableaux that Sokurov lays out, keeping the camera on the outside of the action, adding to an environment where not knowing the context only adds to the experience.
So in stirring up all this feverish confusion, the film accomplishes something inimitable, replicating the feeling of being flung into the heat of a historical moment. It’s a reminder that while the flow of time is clear in hindsight, these are false classifications based on generalities; like the indefinable continental divide that bisects this massive nation, it’s something that eludes neat circumscription. Poised between the present and the past, documenting a culture caught between European liberality and Orthodox conservatism, grand opulence and noble self-sacrifice, Russian Ark remains firmly in command of its contradictions. This all culminates in a ballroom scene, documenting the last ball held by the Tsar in 1914, celebrating three centuries of Romanov rule. Sokurov shoots in the room that the actual party was held, and presents the proceedings as an insignificant guest might have witnessed them, hovering about the edges, catching brief glimmers of its rococo grandness. Then the party ends, the crowd shuffles out, and our ghostly avatar follows, back out into the blinding snow, a final act of concession to the unknowable void of time.