Russian Ark DVD
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Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov
Produced in 2002
Main Language - Russian with English subtitles
Maria Kuznetsova, Sergey Dreiden
Focusing on three centuries of Russian history, from Peter the Great to Tsar Nicholas II, Russian Ark, the latest film by Alexander Sokurov, is an amazing tour de force. Shot in one long 96-minute tracking shot with a cast of 2000 actors and extras, the film takes the viewer into the great Hermitage Collection in St. Petersburg, Russia, showing real works of art from 33 rooms and exploring their meaning in a larger context.
The film begins in the dark with the narrator (apparently Sokurov) commenting about how little he sees. "My eyes are open", he says, "and yet I see nothing." An elegant white-haired man in a black cloak (Sergey Dreiden) suddenly appears and escorts the confused narrator into the corridors of the grand palace. We see works by El Greco, Rubens and Van Dyck in their awesome splendor. We run into Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Nicholas II, the final Russian Tsar hosting the Great Royal Ball of 1913, the last such formal occasion of its kind. As we enter the Great Nicholas Hall, the opulent room is filled with thousands of aristocrats dancing the mazurka in gorgeous period costumes. At the end, there is the peaceful flow of a river outside the hall to which the narrator comments, "The flow is forever. Life is forever." More than just a great technical achievement, this is also a sublime meditation on the individual's place in the universe, one that does not recreate history but allows us to revisit it on a dreamlike stage where past, present, and future are one.
An ecstatic, bravura piece of filmmaking and the world's first ever one-take, entirely unedited feature film. Sokurov's amazing journey winds us though the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg, bringing Russia's turbulent history to life with a cast of thousands. A giddying watch.
Publisher: Artificial Eye
Length: 96 mins
Aspect ratio: Widescreen
Format: DVD Colour
Released: 29th September 2003
Cat No: ART256DVD
- Making-of documentary
- Hubert Robert: A Fortunate Life - documentary by Sokurov
- Stills gallery
- Filmographies & Biographies
by Anon on 2nd January 2004
I wish I had rented this film from moviemail. Then I could have switched it off and gone to bed. Instead, we hired a babysitter and devoted an entire evening to watchi... Read on
I wish I had rented this film from moviemail. Then I could have switched it off and gone to bed. Instead, we hired a babysitter and devoted an entire evening to watching the dullest piece of filmaking in history. it is possibly the most self indulgent, overrated, ill-inspired work I have ever seen. I have never enjoyed visiting museums, but at least you get to walk around. The one redeeming feature is a fabulous orchestra at the very end. But, please. This film seemed like the sick idea of a couple of students that managed to persuade someone to lend them the money to shoot it. I wish they hadn't. Hide
by Barry Forshaw on 10th July 2003
A truly stunning movie, Sokurov's delirious single-take masterpiece enjoys an exemplary DVD transfer here. Read on
A truly stunning movie, Sokurov's delirious single-take masterpiece enjoys an exemplary DVD transfer here. Hide
by Anon on 21st January 2004
Russian Ark is not only a film of incomparable technical ambition; a sinuous, languorous, labyrinthine ramble, achieved in a single, astounding 96 minute digital take,... Read on
Russian Ark is not only a film of incomparable technical ambition; a sinuous, languorous, labyrinthine ramble, achieved in a single, astounding 96 minute digital take, that glides stealthily through the gilded splendours of the Hermitage at St Petersburg, guided by an 18th century French diplomat- with audience and a mumbling off-screen "spy" joined as spectators to a sumptuous array of paintings and sculptures (Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Canova..), classical concerts, a grand ball, specific historical pageants and figures, including a now young, now aged Empress Catherine II; it is also a pretentious, self-indulgent elaboration of the director Sokurov's thematic concerns, a preposterous virtuoso display of choreography (marshalling a cast of almost a thousand) and costumes, an extraordinary, painstakingly rehearsed theatrical performance- replete with lugubrious longueurs- that renders editing redundant; a refined examination of the links between past and present, various art forms, Russian and European civilisation, illusion and reality; a "ne plus ultra" culmination of certain arthouse aspirations that also serves as a beautiful eulogy of cinema history, subjectively recalling Last Year at Marienbad, Celine and Julie go Boating, Visconti's The Leopard, Bondarchuk's War and Peace, Anger's Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, Ophuls, Von Sternberg, Kubrick et al; a noble, elegiac testament to celluloid and the prodigious ten minute take, an allusive celebration tinged with melancholy, a closure, an opening, a deliciously sensuous surreal journey from within a disturbed mind, a Carrollian wander through a cultural warren; an ego trip - with camera as eye for an I - for director and viewer alike, an eyes wide shut meditation on vision, voyeurism, identity; an intimate space odyssey of 2002, an ethereal exploration of Time, a graceful, ghostly reflection on transience and the echoing footfalls of history, a remembrance of things past, a Proustian sentence; a dream, death, eternity...and none of the above. Hide
“Russian Ark? a double take”
by Jose Arantes on 6th January 2011
According to the producer Jens Maurer, four years were dedicated to the development of Russian Ark before it could be shot in one single day on location - the State He... Read on
According to the producer Jens Maurer, four years were dedicated to the development of Russian Ark before it could be shot in one single day on location - the State Hermitage Museum, in St Petersburg. It was Alexander Sokurovs intention to shoot in one breath this orchestration of multiple spaces and about 2,000 actors and extras to evoke 300 years of condensed history, politics and culture. Everything had to be as precise as possible, from the screenplay to the pre-production, including the mapping of more than thirty rooms the camera would wander through following the characters.
Time and timing were crucial, for the internal pace of the piece and its realisation - the physical real time that would turn the last of countless rehearsals into the final product. For Sokurov one breath meant one single take. Technically, at that time it was possible thanks to a Steadicam customised for the project and a Sony HD 24p camera, which instead of tape used a huge portable external hard-drive capable of storing up to 100 minutes of footage.
It was a challenging feat that paid off. Those who have seen Russian Ark know it deserves all the praise it received since its theatrical release on the 22nd of May, 2002, at Cannes. For some critics and filmgoers, it is obscure and flawed. Obscure it may be, as it requires some knowledge to identify historical figures and periods, but also due to a vagueness typical of Sokurov. As a flaw, it is often pointed out that the magic is destroyed by two or three extras looking straight at the lens, feeling uncomfortable in front of the camera in the ballroom and the final stairs sequences. This is minor, considering the achievement.
It is true, though, that it is flawed in another, more relevant aspect, not often mentioned, if ever. Being a major flaw, obviously it is not referred to in press releases nor hinted in reviews.
When in production, Russian Ark was already talked about as the first feature film ever in one single take. This would mean: the director says action, the camera rolls, the action starts and 90 minutes later or so the director says cut, and the whole film is there, already edited (in a complex pre-shooting stage), only partially finished because it still has to go on post-production. And long after its release, Russian Ark was hailed as the first feature film ever made in one single take in 100 hundred years of the history of cinema.
That is what Sokurov aimed for, and eventually the promotion of the film rested on it. This is an external and strategic flaw that had to be maintained to conceal an internal flaw. Indeed, it seems that Sokurov was somehow defeated by the concept and technology that would make his vision come true. As we see it, the film was not shot in one single take but in two takes, digitally stitched together in a way that makes us believe that the flow of the camera and the continuity of space are still there.
Thirty two minutes and forty seconds into the film, 1 the French diplomat Marquis de Custine enters a room, after being expelled from a previous one where he talked to a blind woman and two sailors. This is a long room, with green walls, wooden patterned flooring, a wide alley and four main partitions on each side on which classic paintings are displayed. Right at the end of the ally, a doorway leads to a smaller room, and a doorway in this smaller room leads to what we will call a gallery. De Custine advances while talking to the narrator (Sokurovs voice-over), the camera moves around him, until he stops to look closely at a painting hung almost at the edge of a partition, next to the alley. The camera closes in the painting, pans to the right and in a big close-up frames the hands of the Spy (the character who has been following the Marquis) 34min10s. Some ghostly light, from an unknown source, flickers on the restless hands, as the Spy scratches them and gloves his right hand. The camera lingers on and the hands are pushed to the left, out of the screen; the camera moves to the right capturing the patterned flooring, first darkish and out of focus, and then, as it pans vertically, bright, capturing the Marquis walking towards a boy who is examining a painting in the next gallery 34min40s. Shortly after, the Spy enters the same gallery and seats on a bench.
This moment draws our attention because it contains the very first and only steady and sustained close-up in the entire film. The Spy appears from the opening scenes of the film, lurking from a distance, sometimes brushing past the Marquis, who is always aware of his presence. Why does he turn up at the edge of the partition where the Marquis is looking at the picture, while the Marquis addresses him off-screen, What are you doing? Eavesdropping? Nothing is developed between the two men, we are just left with the hands. Why? As this close encounter does not develop this subplot either, we are led to the conclusion that it is there for a practical, technical purpose: an editing.
In fact we can see in brief seconds that as soon as the hands stop moving, they become dead, in frozen frames, and are unnaturally pushed to the left, off the screen, while at the same time the camera is unnaturally pushed to the right, frozen as well, until the digital stitch ends and the flowing camera is reinstated in real time. A very brief two or three seconds, enough to see the workings of the post-production.
This is verifiable, but how can we be sure? There is another clue. We only need to rewind to the beginning of this scene (32min42s).
When the Marquis de Custine enters the room, we can see at the very end the bottom wall of the room on the left, also green, with bigger paintings hanging. The picture the Marquis contemplates is at the edge of the fourth and last main partition, a few yards away from that wall. To go to the gallery, he would have about twenty or more of his wide paces to reach that wall, go through the doorway, walk through the adjacent smaller room and finally reach the gallery. If this scene were shot in real time, when the camera panned away from the hands it would capture the floor of that first room, not the floor of the gallery. The physical rules of distance in space have been broken, some steps disappeared in a big jump. This could only happen with the help of a digital doctoring, and a not satisfactory one.
We know that due to technical problems the shooting had three frustrating starts of different lengths and it had to begin again, as a last attempt, for the fourth time.2 Maybe one of those failed starts was incorporated in the version released. Or was the cut, the interruption, intentionally used to make more feasable the shooting of what would come later the extremely complex scenes involving huge crowds? The evidence offered here suggests that this latter speculation is plausible. We do not know what happened, probably never will, but this is a clear evidence that Russian Ark cannot be considered the first full length film in one single take in the history of cinema. It is still alongside Hitchcocks Rope, though fares much better.3
If we really need to identify a feature film that was made in a single continuous take, we should start looking somewhere else and think it over. Maybe we should consider Mike Figgiss experimental film, made about three years before Russian Ark and released in 2000: Timecode.
1 The reference here is the DVD released by Artificial Eye.
2 There are contradictory accounts as to the exact length and number of the false starts. Mark Cousins mentions two five-minute takes before a third, final shooting (see Widescreen, Prospect, 27 June 2002), and so William Johnson (Film Quarterly, Vol. 57, No. 2 Winter, 2003-2004, pp. 48-51, University of California Press), but Tilman Bttner, the German Director of Photography, refers to a ten-minute take (see the documentary In One Breath, directed by Knut Elstermann, 2003, from which some information provided by the interviewees was used in this article). The film is the result of a fourth and final attempt.
3 This is a superficial comparison that needs to be put in context. Many film-makers have always been fascinated by long takes, including Sokurov himself. Working with celluloid, though, they were all limited by the duration of the reel. When Rope was made in 1948, the maximum duration was about 10 minutes. Rope is often quoted as being the first attempt to create a continuous take, or rather an illusion of real time action and real time filming. In real life, after fifteen rehearsals, in a studio, not on location, the shooting started in January 22 and was finished in February 21. In those twenty one days, the scenes had as many as three to fifteen takes each, until Hitchcock was satisfied. It was a cumbersome process, since the camera was huge and heavy, mounted on a special crane, and parts of the set had to be dislocated to give it space to move around. There are eleven editings, or cuts, five of them direct and visible, the other five disguised by the camera, mainly resourcing to closing in the back of a character and blackening the screen to make the editing invisible. (See The Dark Side of Genius The Life Of Alfred Hitchcock, Donald Spoto, pp. 302-307, Plexus, London, 1983).
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