Wednesday, July 07, 2004

The Hermitage Comes Alive in Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark


James Joyce completed his greatest and most misunderstood work, Finnegans Wake (abbreviated below as FW), in 1939. After 19 years of writing the 20th century's most enigmatic masterpiece of linguistics, Joyce would claim that he had written a history of all humanity disguised as a dream. In his latest film, Alexander Sokurov managed the Russian equivalent of Joyce's hermetic novel in a movie (albeit in highly abbreviated form) that defies historical apathy while creating one of the more realistic dream-sequences ever expressed in film. Upon closer inspection, the two works have a lot in common. Russian Ark is a marvel in many respects: it is hard to imagine how this meditation on history and cultural identity could be made in one continuous 96-minute take, as combined feats of choreography, staging and pacing reveal a tour-de-force of film-making and artistic vision. It is especially impressive that the effort took eight months to conceive, construct and rehearse (with over 850 actors) and one day to shoot (Ark was filmed on December 23rd, 2001).

When the preview and first descriptions of Russian Ark came on the scene early this year, we learned that the film’s action took place within the Hermitage and was shot in "one breath" (to quote Sokurov). Curiosity piqued immediately. This was a film that would deliver an unusual slant on editing; an exploration of one of the greatest art collections in the world (over 3.5 million pieces); a core of actors pooled from the Marinsky Theater (who mounted an exuberant and enormously satisfying production of Waiting for Godot that I caught during my stay in Saint Petersburg); and finally, a film that brought Russian history and this fantastic museum to life. For a wannabe Russofile, it would not get any better any time soon.

Historical Backdrop

Since the film veers in and out of timelines that range throughout the past 400 years of Russian history and rarely stays in one era for more than a few moments at a time, it was possible to let the film wash over you and allow yourself to be swept away by the magnificence of the Ark’s film technique while missing the historical relevance of the work. Several friends told me that they desired a greater knowledge of Russian culture to fill in the film’s historical subtext. With that in mind, perhaps the first thing to discuss is how the Hermitage came into existence. The following is a highly condensed form of that story.

Tsar Peter (the Great) conquered the Swedes that occupied this northwestern region at the turn of the 18th century. This was a strategic battle for the Russians, for Petersburg sits at the mouth of the Neva River where it runs into the Gulf of Finland - a window to the North Sea, the Atlantic, and a piece of land essential for controlling trade routes to the west. He then initiated work on draining the swamp where the city of Saint Petersburg now stands.

At the time of Peter’s death, he and Catherine II had successfully engaged Venetian architects to design the look of the city and its many canals. She also contracted them to build a home for her art collection - her Hermitage - that would continue to increase throughout her lifetime and beyond. The combined efforts of Peter and Catherine the Great were to bring the west to Russia, and the foundation of this wondrous city is the crown jewel of that great achievement.

The Hermitage is also referred to as the Winter Palace, and there are a few wings of this enormous structure that were designed as living quarters for the Russian aristocracy. Catherine II lived there, as did some of her successors, many of whom appear in the film. Historically, Catherine the Great is known as being largely responsible for opening the doorway to the west; partially due to the European architecture she imported to the city and partially due to the fact that she filled her Hermitage with European art (along with the art of many cultures) while encouraging a variety of political relationships with the west.

What’s in the Ark?

The negotiation between Russian and European culture is one of the central themes of Russian Ark. The narrative that drives the film, like the narrator(s) of FW, delivers a story of the ages without ever disclosing an identity. In both cases, it is the voice of contemporary humanity looking back through history in order to gain a footing on the present state of society. Today, as Russians face a tremendous moral crisis as a result of post Glasnost politics, Russian Ark serves as a mirror to the past. For Joyce, the years that followed WW I and led to the Nazi occupation of Paris, represented a period riddled with moral questions posed by the political and social changes of the Modern Era, and those issues populate the archetypal dreamscapes of FW.

It is in fact a narrative voice that begins the journey of this Russian Ark in absolute darkness (FW is often referred to as Joyce's "Book of the Dark"). Several questions float in a quiet confusion before a light begins to break upon the screen. As images sharpen, the narrator is walking toward the entrance of a building, following a party that has just descended from a fine carriage, dressed in early-18th century costumes. He discovers that they are entering the Hermitage and shortly thereafter he meets a gentleman who goes by the name "The Marquise" – a man temporarily dumbfounded by their location and one who seems equally surprised to find himself in the narrator's dream and that he can suddenly speak Russian.

The two continue together to pass through over 35 rooms while pausing to comment on Rembrandt, Italian baroque sculpture, Pushkin, the allure of women, music, theater, the military, religion, and the ever appearing (and disappearing) icons and figures of Russian history. These debates transpire as the dialogue weaves dialectic on the dependence of Europe in Russian art.

Time and history do not flow in a strict chronology in Sokurov’s dreamtime, which hinders any kind of rational assessment Russia’s cultural evolution. In one hall, Russian soldiers march past in WW II uniforms while the next room hosts an apology to Czar Nicolas I from the nephew of a sultan in Iran. A play is rehearsing on the main stage while Catherine II runs to the WC, and on her search for the elusive toilet she leads viewers to a hallway where university students in jeans and parkas stare at paintings by Peter Paul Rubens. The Romanovs, just days before the October Revolution, which took their lives and the lives of their children, sit impatiently at the dinner table waiting for Anastasia to return from dancing in the hallways with her friends. Through the benefit of dream logic, the audience travels through a museum that has come to life, and the different wings that represent different eras of time appear randomly, often taking the viewer by surprise.

During the closing scenes of the film, the narrator and the Marquise lead the audience to a large ballroom, teeming with late 19th century aristocracy – a time that now exists in a sentimental wonderland that a bygone generation once enjoyed before the October Revolution. The orchestra plays a mazurka for men and women who dance in stunning period costumes while the camera miraculously weaves a finely choreographed pathway through the grand ballroom. The music ends, the audience applauds and praises the conductor and the musicians and there seems to be an overwhelming sense of appreciation for the arts pouring out from the crowd and off the screen. The crowd makes their way out, and the Marquise, dressed in strange attire (many around him complain of the scent of formaldehyde in his presence), decides that he will remain, allowing the narrator to move freely into the future - a future that promenades with what seems like a great assembly of ghosts, all moving toward an exit that looks out upon the Neva River, where fog rises lazily into subtle rays of morning sunlight. Like the ending of FW, the reader/viewer is following a river that flows onward and is about to lose itself to a larger body of water (the Neva flows into the gulf of Finland, the Liffey flows into Dublin bay in FW) representing rebirth, the future, and the collective unconscious of both Sokurov's Russia and Joyce's Ireland.


Whether you know anything about Russian history or not, Russian Ark may seduce you to want to learn more. If we could learn history while walking through museums that come to life as the Hermitage does in this intriguing feature, it is possible that history would hold a place of awe for more of us. In this way, Russian Ark succeeds where lecture and mere readings are left lacking in imagination and immediacy. For the sheer spectacle of one of the world’s great collections of art and the history of a consistently misunderstood culture, this masterpiece of historical fiction is not to be missed.

Oakland, CA
March 2003


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