If you think Marty Scorcese proved mastery of the long take in “Goodfellas,” take a look at his competition: Alexander Sokurov’s “Russian Ark.” Filmed in a single day, “Russian Ark” spans 300 years of Russian history in a single 96-minute tracking shot that floats through the rooms of the famous Hermitage Museum. Cast with hundreds of extras, three live orchestras and an assured but invisible fleet of techies, the film stands not only as the longest uninterrupted shot in film history, but also as the first feature film ever created in a single take.
Knowing all this, I went into the theatre with furrowed brows: there must be a cut somewhere — but there isn’t. Initially, I stared fixedly at the screen, looking for mistakes, but soon relaxed into the fluid, hypnotic motion of the film, and let the camera guide me as it floated smoothly through the resplendent halls of the Hermitage. The entire experience is less about the spectacle of the technological feat, and more about how you watch the meticulously choreographed action. The point is, you’re supposed to feel like you are touring the gallery yourself, sweeping from one great masterpiece to another, from one hall to another, in one uninterrupted trip.
In “Russian Ark,” the camera follows our hero, a nameless 19th-century French aristocrat called “Stranger,” who, lost in the museum, wanders the corridors. Throughout his journey, he maintains a dialogue with the cameraman–our narrator. As the stranger strolls through the halls of the galleries, his boot heels clicking like a ticking metronome, he gives a scathing but hilarious critique of Russian life and culture. When he stops in front of the huge paintings that adorn the walls, he gives both an art and history lesson as he examines, worships, and indeed inhales the works of art.
Everything in “Russian Ark” is the stuff of theater — from the stylized gestures of the actors to dramatic monologues of “Stranger” who earnestly claims, “Russia is like a theater.” The camera’s whirling motion breathlessly takes in the overwhelming architecture of the Hermitage, heavy with baroque detail. In this whimsical manner, the film spans centuries of time and history. In one scene, for example, the camera stumbles upon a room full of present day gallery-goers, and then suddenly veers into another hall, revealing Tsar Nicholas I and his entire family sitting down for a meal. Many figures from Russian history and culture litter the film — even Pushkin makes a cameo.
What could easily be dragged out into a long, boring meander through an empty building is saved by the film’s humor. The anonymous aristocrat provides many snide remarks as he meets various strangers. When he meets two elderly art critics, he looks at the camera asking the narrator if he smells that strange odor — like formaldehyde. The stranger harshly critiques Russian culture: in terms of art, “Russia was always good at copying”; regarding music, “Russian music makes me break out in hives.” His tirades will no doubt offend Russian nationalists, but for the rest of us, it’s a great, though biased, history lesson.
Sometimes “Russian Ark” borders on boredom, but there are some stunning sequences. Look for a scene between Stranger and a blind woman who describes the paintings without being able to actually see them. But by far, the film’s high point is the final ballroom scene, in which hundreds of extras, resplendent in period garb, dance mazurkas to a full orchestra. In this extended dance sequence, the camera floats effortlessly between the dancers, and you really feel like you are right there in St. Petersburg, a member of the court at the Winter Palace.
“Russian Ark,” with its ethereal dreamscapes, captures a wistful nostalgia and a sense of romantic timelessness. The film offers biting and often hilarious esoteric musings on philosophy, art history, and Russian culture. And don’t be mistaken — its unforgettable single-take technique is not just a gimmick. Rather, it elegantly implies the immutable track of history. Once something is done, it cannot be changed or undone. But more than anything, “Russian Ark” is a just good idea, and one that works.