Russian Ark is a single tracking time travel shot lasting about 87 minutes. Director of Photography Tillman Butter (Run Lola Run), used a steadicam later transferring footage to 35mm film. It is the longest shot in film history- a real technical marvel. Directed by Russian Alexander Sokurov, who attempted this three times before getting it right, the film took four years to finance and prepare involving numerous- 2,000 actually- actors and touring of nearly a mile of galleries and hallways of the former Czarist palace in St. Petersburg called the Hermitage. Apparently other filmmakers have attempted this type of unbroken filming including Hitchcock but nothing on this scale. Known more for his emphasis on visuals and less on dialogue to convey a story’s meaning (think 1996’s “Mother and Son) Sokurov’s film is a lush and wondrous sojourn through this sumptuous museum. The Hermitage is viewed through the eyes of a 21st Century narrator (the never seen Sokurov) and an odd, elitist, at times annoying 19th Century European diplomat played by Sergei Dreiden.
Three hundred years of Russian history are the subject of the film and we encounter Czarina Alexandra, Catherine II as she is looking for the bathroom and ends up literally pissing in a pot as well as Peter the Great berating a courtier. The diplomat and narrator can see each other as they traverse the corridors with the diplomat stopping to chat with various museum visitors as well as historic figures. For most of the film the narrator remains invisible until he encounters two doctors that he knows since they are from the 21st Century. The narrator introduces them to the diplomat and the three discuss some Italian paintings. It is a funny little segment with the diplomat, who has this creepy Christopher Lee like quality about him, debating the painting with the doctors.
The running dialogue between the narrator and diplomat is the thread that helps to weave the many scenes, rooms and artwork together. The diplomat raises an interesting point when he mentions that Russians appropriated the art of other culture—intimating that Russians have no real indigenous culture of their own and that the Hermitage is a repository of numerous Italian, Dutch and Spanish paintings— and not a lot of Russian works. This is an argument that some art collectors have debated over the years but no matter—the experience of viewing this museum in such a manner is pretty cool. One really interesting thing that comes to mind after viewing the film is the question that since the creation of this film was such a novel, technical feat does that impact the appreciation of the film for it’s own merits. It doesn’t really. Engaging and thought provoking the film would work either way—in the traditional way of assembling edited shots or in one long lush take.