In the finalé of Russian Ark, the Steadicam, representing the Spy’s (Leonid Mozgovoy) point of view, enters the last royal ball held in the Great Nicholas Hall of the Winter Palace under Tsar Nicholas II in 1913, a few years before the Russian Revolution. Hundreds of extras in gorgeous historical costumes dance to a mazurka composed by Mikhail Glinka and performed by the famous Mariinsky Theater Orchestra conducted by Valeri Gergiev.
This careful reconstruction, digitally enhanced during post-production, concludes the first ever 96-minute single-take high definition video feature — a journey through three centuries of Russian history and 33 rooms of the Hermitage, now the most revered art museum in Russia, and formerly the Winter Palace, the residence of Russian tsars. Russian Ark seeks to recreate on high definition video the erstwhile splendor of the Russian Empire and its high-culture: the architecture of the palace, the painting and sculpture currently displayed at the Hermitage, and the theater and music performed at the palace in royal times.
Unfortunately, the film’s high-tech artistic fantasies elide completely the historical roots and contemporary realities of global capitalism and terrorism. This makes its visual and historical argument dazzling but less than relevant to contemporary Russian and world culture.
Russian Ark transcends the usual constraints of low-budget joint venture (Russian-German) filmmaking and is a remarkable technical and organizational feat. Yet production details posted on the official film site still reveal a post-Soviet messiness behind the seamless final product. On the shortest day of winter, December 23, the crew had only 4 hours to complete the shoot, involving nearly 1000 extras. The Steadicam operator Tilman Buettner (Run Lola Run) had to stop twice because of assistants’ technical mistakes and by the time the crew started for the third time they barely had enough daylight left. The next day, conductor Gergiev had to leave for New York and the shoot could not be postponed because due to budget constraints the money had to be spent by January. But the only trace of this confusion in the final version is the soundtrack — made after the shoot, it does not entirely follow the actors’ lip movements.
Against all odds, the film constructs an uninterrupted, visual and celebratory account of Russian culture. The film offers a series of vivid poetic encounters in place of a narrative, which makes it difficult for lay viewers to examine critically the events it portrays. In this tale, the Spy, whose point of view is always represented by the camera, and the 19th-century French diplomat Marquis de Custine (Sergei Dreiden) find themselves in the 18th-century Winter Palace and move from room to room, encountering figures and scenes from Russian history. Peter the Great (Maxim Sergeyev) beats up one of his generals. Catherine the Great (Maria Kuznetsova) watches a rehearsal of the Mariinsky Theater.
These scenes aim to conjure a glorious Russian past, but many viewers might not recognize these players unless they are already familiar with Russian Imperial history. The real Marquis de Custine, for example, published scandalous and critical memoirs about his life in St. Petersburg. But when the Marquis excoriates Russian art in comparison to works by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and Rubens, the film’s critique of the European aristocrat’s prejudice is obvious only to the initiated, since the film never explicitly introduces the Marquis, his historical significance, nor any other main characters in this story.
In selecting scenes to stage, Russian Ark refuses to see the continuities between authoritarian Imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet governments. It chooses to remember Nicholas II as having a peaceful meal with his children, portrayed by big-eyed cute child actors clad in white. In a few years, the entire family would be shot on Vladimir Lenin’s orders. Eager to mourn the Romanovs, Russian Ark forgets the political decisions made by the Romanov dynasty that still have grave consequences.
The film alludes to Russia’s longstanding confrontations with Eastern powers in a protracted ceremony where the grandson of the Persian Shah formally apologizes to Nicholas I for the murder of Russian diplomats (including playwright Aleksandr Griboedov) in Tehran. But it does not mention Russia’s invasion of Chechnya, also in the 19th century, made all the more pertinent by the recent takeover of a Moscow theater by Chechens demanding the end to the current war in the region. In the absence of historical parallels with the social cataclysms of the following century, the audience is left to conclude that the Empire produced everything beautiful in Russian culture and the only task left now is to preserve it intact for posterity.
In the Soviet period, intellectuals’ knowledge and understanding of classical Russian and Western European art might have served as a form of cultural resistance to the philistine totalitarian state. Toward the end of the film, the directors of the Hermitage — Hovsep Orbely (David Giorgobiani), his successor Boris Piotrovsky the Elder (Alexander Chaban), and his son, the current director Boris Piotrovsky (playing himself) — allude to the times when uneducated Soviet officials pillaged, sold, or gave away many art objects in the museum. The film points to how appreciation of classical art might have helped people survive physical and emotional hardships of war, and, by extension, communist repression, when it shows an old man, dying of hunger, but undefeated, in the freezing Hermitage workshop during the World War Two Siege of Leningrad. Today, with no totalitarian government to endure and many Imperial problems still awaiting solutions, it is unclear how even the most visually stunning portrayal of Russian aristocratic culture as a paradise lost helps to deal with Russia’s violent capitalist present.