Russian Ark (2002)
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov
Cast: Sergei Dontsov, Mariya Kuznetsova, Leonid Mozgovoy, Mikhail Piotrovsky, Aleksandr Sokurov
My Rating: 10/10
In Short: One-Take Wonder
I open my eyes and I see nothing.”
So begins Aleksandr Sokurov’s amazing record-breaking film Russian Ark, which I’ve just very recently decided will be now among my one hundred favourites of all time. It is a 10/10, five star picture in every sense of the term. It is set to be one of the most enduring, magnificent movies ever made.
And if you know anything about Russian Ark, you will know the unique manner in which the film is shot: one take. One single, completely unbroken, unaltered take. The camera flows fluildy through thirty-three rooms of the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, examining the past, present and future of Russian culture. But don’t be alarmed: the film is not just a boring history lecture. Sure, history plays a key part in the film, but there’s very little you need to know beforehand to enjoy it.
Much of the film focuses on the features of the museum, but Sokurov does not make his film a tourist guide or anything. The entire film is presumably from the POV perspective of an unseen narrator, who is a time traveller who is travelling under the guidance of The Stranger, a man who walks with him through the museum.
The film splices into historical events easily and naturally, without using any CGI special effects or over-the-top time travelling sequences. In fact, it can be sometimes difficult to distinguish between the historical and modern scenes. You might be asking, how can a film jump through time without cutting? Simple. Each room of the Hermitage is different, from a different era; at one point the camera even glides outside to the snowy courtyard.
Some of the behind the scenes stories make the fact that this was accomplished in one take all the more astonishing, such as: the crew only had the Hermitage for one day to shoot in; the cinematographer and the director both spoke different languages, so a translator was constantly needed; the film’s incredible dance sequence denouement was re-enacted in the exact same room the event took place in. Also, the film is the first completely uncompressed high definiton movie ever made.
Though it isn’t a history lesson, Sokurov does take joy in dwelling on reminiscing Russia’s past, as works of art are shown on screen and then we are transported into rooms decorated so beautifully that we feel inside one of the paintings we may have just seen. The art direction and set design is magnificent, painstakingly perfect, and the actors are dressed and made up perfectly and realistically. If cameras had been around in the hundreds of years earlier when some of these things took place, and events had been filmed, I imagine the footage would look incredibly similar to what Sokurov has recreated.
As the camera is moving so gracefully through the museum, I almost forgot this was one take. I realized that cuts were not needed, and that this film would have felt so much more artificial and less compelling if edited traditionally. The one take adds a sense of realism, feeling that this film was shot in real time, which makes the time travelling sequences much more astonishing and flow much better.
The film culminates in an extraordinary sequence that has to be one of the most incredible ever shot. The camera enters a ballroom where hundreds are dancing, and a gigantic orchestra are playing, and it moves amazingly through every single person, twisting and turning in a manner which seems impossible. It’s a wonder no one stumbled, or the camera operator never faultered. This sequence alone is worth seeing the film several times. It truly is breathtaking, and that is no exaggeration.
Russian Ark is undeniably one of the best movies of the decade, and one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all time. It can never be matched, in my opinion, and if any other director manages to make a ninety minute movie in one take, it’s unlikely it will be a movie as stunning as this. If you ever see one film about contemporary history, make it this one. If you ever see one film shot entirely in one take, make it this one. If you watch films, make this one of them.