Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark consists of a single 90-minute-long Steadicam shot (realized on digital video, and then transferred to film). It’s an amazing technical achievement, to be sure, but it isn’t just technique that makes Russian Ark such an astonishing film…
Russian Ark is a panorama of Russian history, or more precisely of the history of the Tsars and the Court, from Peter the Great to the eve of the Revolution. Lacking context, I didn’t know what many of the events portrayed in the film were; but it scarcely mattered. The single shot enters the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, travels through the rooms and corridors, and exits a window at the end. The panorama of history is presented along the way, different rooms portraying different times and events (as far as I could tell, in linear temporal sequence).
The two characters who remain constant throughout the film are the unseen voice and eye of the camera, and a French Marquis who is kind of a mediator. The Marquis converses with the camera (I don’t know what else to call this character we never see, but through whose eyes we see), and also with the various people in the historical scenarios. But to everyone besides the Marquis, the camera is unseen and unheard.
The Steadicam is highly mobile; it doesn’t ever stop moving, and it doesn’t move in anything like a simple or straight line. It bobs and weaves, goes forward and back, circles around a room in complex rhythms, before it moves on to the next room or the next scenario. It comes close to people or objects, and then backs off again, continually altering viewpoint and scale. It never actually leaves the ground, though it often gazes up at the high ceilings and great distances of the Hermitage’s vast halls.
The events the camera records tend themselves to be dramatic or musical performances, or else court ceremonies that are just as theatrical as any overt performance.
The effect of all this movement, of this variable positioning, is remarkable. The camera–and therefore the spectator who sees and hears along with the camera–is a strange, ghostly presence. There is nothing here like the Cartesian perspective of traditional cinema. The camera is too active, too involved in the action: it is part of the scene, it moves along with the action, it runs or walks or turns around; it is held back by the pressure of people in a crowded space. The camera, that is to say, has a physical or tactile presence; it is never removed from the action, it is always part of the scene, and the space, that it records.
But at the same time, the camera is invisible (to all except the Marquis) and seemingly impalpable. It cannot affect the action or the other characters in any way, even though it palpably feels the pressure of those actions and those characters. This is why the camera, the spectator, is a spectral presence, a ghost. It’s often said that postmodernity reduces things and events to simulacra; but here it is the spectator, rather than the spectacle, that is simulacral.
The last half hour or so of the film is a dance in the Hermitage’s grand ballroom. (According to the film’s website, this is “last Great Royal Ball of 1913,” just before Russa, and the world, were changed forever). Hundreds of dancers–the men in formal military dress, the women in evening gowns–whirl around, in formal patterns both gorgeous and ludicrous, while a full orchestra plays on a raised platform at one side of the hall. The camera does not try to emulate the movements of the dancers. It does something even more intricate, as it pushes through the press of people, comes in for closeups and pulls back for long shots, lifts itself up onto the orchestra platform and looks over the backs of the musicians at the crowd of dancers. When the music ends, the camera is caught in the press of people who slowly make their way out the entrance on the far side of the room, and down the grand stairway to the entrance hall. The camera moves slowly, finds an opening and speeds up, turns to look behind at the crowd of oncoming people as it continues to move backwards, looks up at the balcony from the bottom of the stairs… Finally the camera zooms through a window and out to a view of the Baltic Sea. And finally fades out. Forgive me for being such an aesthete, but the whole thirty minutes is one of the most exhilarating extended moments of pure cinema that I have ever seen.