Russian Ark (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD), Alexander Sokurov’s tribute to the Hermitage Museum through time and space created, would be worth celebrating for its technical achievement alone. In a single, unbroken shot lasting over 90 minutes, the viewer is swept not just through the breadth of the physical space but through hundreds of years of Russian history as we travel through the State Hermitage Museum of Saint Petersburg.
This isn’t documentary, it is historical pageant, with scenes staged for each room along the journey. We glide back and forth in time as we cross the threshholds from one room to another, moving from contemporary patrons appreciating the masterworks on the walls to a carpenter constructing coffins for the dead of World War I, from visits with Catherine the Great to eavesdropping on Cold War era curators discussing to the difficulties in preserving the heritage in the face of a Soviet government intent on rewriting history, and finally dancing through a 19th century ballroom in a finale suffused with a luxurious nostalgia that is as poignant as it is ambiguous.
Our guide is a spindly time traveler (Sergey Dreyden) who flits through history as if at home in other eras, and the camera is the kino-eye of our narrator (Sokurov himself). The handheld camera floats through the world as the distant observer, taking in grand long shots filled with figures or the cavernous spaces of sparsely populated rooms, and moves in to commune with the characters and take in the minute details of individual paintings and sculptures. It’s a delirious piece of cinema, a metaphor for the transporting power of artifacts and art and historical preservation to sweep us into the past, and a work of filmmaking as graceful as ballet. There is nothing else like this.
It took the digital age to create the high-definition video technology necessary for a sustained long take of this length (no cheating here, it was all shot in a single, unbroken take) and an artist willing to take on such a challenge to attempt a project of this scale. Not just the longest sustained SteadiCam sequence ever taken in a film, but a coordinated piece of dramatic storytelling with over 180 actors, 1300 extras, and a full symphony orchestra that had to perform on cue without making a mistake while the crew wrestled with the physical and technical hurdles. The completed film is so ethereal and graceful that you never even ponder the technical challenges even as Sokurov shifts tone and texture and atmosphere with every new room. Just the change in light signals a whole new world to take in.
It’s been remastered for the Blu-ray debut and new DVD edition and, even though it is mastered from technology over a decade old (a lifetime when it comes to digital photography), it is a noticeable improvement over the previous DVD edition. In Russian with English subtitles, with the 43-minute documentary “In One Breath” about the making of the film from conception to post-production.