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Aleksandr Sokurov's Russkii kovcheg (Russian Ark, 2002)KARLOVY VARY
Elegy to history
Aleksandr Sokurov's
Russkii kovcheg
(Russian Ark, 2002)

Russkii kovcheg, with international theatrical releases on the horizon, seems set to at least equal the plaudits that Mat' i syn brought Sokurov. Andrew James Horton explores the film in the light of a lesser-known documentary by the director.

The camera recedes down the hall lined with the aristocracy departing from a grand ball in the dying years of Russia's Tsarist period, and we overhear their trivial chit-chat. "It feels like we're floating," says a young women. And indeed it does.

Sokurov's latest film, Russkii kovcheg (Russian Ark, 2002) carries the viewer on an ever-flowing stream of time and movement. The film has already gained acres of press coverage (at least, for a new film by an auteur working in a foreign language) owing to its boldly innovative formal structure—a voyage through Russian history, shot in St Petersburg's Hermitage in a single, uninterrupted take with a cast of several thousand all in period costume—and the slight involvement of Martin Scorsese, long a Sokurov fan.

The reception in May at Cannes, where the film premiered in competition, was highly favourable, and attention has been building ever since. A theatrical release in Britain is already pencilled in for spring 2003, and other countries are sure to follow. The film looks as if it could garner more press and public attention than Sokurov's earlier Mat' i syn (Mother and Son, 1997), a Casper David Friedrich-inspired visual poem on a son's final moments with his dying mother that took the critics by storm and famously moved singer Nick Cave (amongst others) to tears.[1]

But looking beyond the hype, what is there to Russkii kovcheg beyond technical audacity, and where do the film's themes stand in relation to Sokurov's other works?

A traveller in time and space

Russkii kovcheg's grand tour through the Hermitage—and Russian history—is presided over by an unseen narrator. As the film starts, he mumbles about an accident and it is clear he has little knowledge of quite where he is or why. After following a group of officers who have arrived for a ball in through a small back entrance, the narrator meets a tetchy and eccentric man in black, another time traveller and the only person who is aware of the narrator's presence. The man (who later turns out to be the Marquis de Custine, a 19th-century French diplomat), is more used to the oddities of coming to in another historical period, although he is rather bemused by his new-found ability to speak perfect Russian.

The camera, subjectively taking the point of view of the narrator, tours the Hermitage as the disembodied time traveller alternates between having gruff arguments with his obtuse and opinionated companion and passively watching him marvel at the sights he sees and the people he meets. All the time we bump into both ordinary people (some contemporary characters playing themselves) and famous historical characters (Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Anastasia and Aleksei—"Was that Pushkin?" de Custine cries out as he walks past somebody). Occasionally, the diplomat wanders off only to appear again later in an another room.

Although the dialogue between the marquis and the narrator has little overall coherence and direction (there is much petty squabbling and murmured asides that barely seem intended for anybody), it adds up overall to a critique of contemporary Russia and it's relation to history, geo-politics, society, culture and collective memory—all of which are symbolically embodied in the location of the Hermitage, a Tsar's palace turned public art gallery and museum.

"Why do you find it necessary to embrace European culture," asks de Custine before berating the narrator for his homeland taking the worst part of Europe. This tension between Russia and Europe is ever-present in Russkii kovcheg, and Sokurov's choice of de Custine as a character is not accidental. The real-life de Custine shunned the trappings of aristocracy (reflected in Russkii kovcheg in his shabby dress and untamed hair) and fell into artistic and literary circles, keeping company with the likes of Stendhal, Honore de Balzac, George Sand and Victor Hugo. But he is best known for a book that shocked Europe with its account of the cruelty and mismanagement of Russian rule, as he observed it on in a visit to the country in 1839.[2] The director himself has wryly commented in an interview that "Russia has love for Europe, but this attachment is not shared by Europe."[3]

Alienation from ones epoch

Aleksandr Sokurov's Russkii kovcheg (Russian Ark, 2002)
The dancing in the face of a dying era

Russkii kovcheg is less a manifesto on European integration and more a spiritual stock-taking in a time of change and collective angst. The fashionable aristos drift down the grand staircase, unawares of the woes of world war and Bolshevik uprising ahead. Decades before Sokurov, but only years after these revellers left, Sergei Eisenstein shot Aleksandr Kerensky, the equally doomed interim premier of Russia in 1917, rising the same staircase, his ascent constantly repeating itself in a montage mimicking the increasing titles he bestowed upon himself.[4] The direction and pace of filming is different here, but the effect is the same. There's a palpable sense of the extraordinary grandeur being at odds with the period and of everyone being oblivious to it. With the main protagonists dislocated from their own present (we do not even know where which period the narrator comes from) and the oneiric sweep of the film, there's a nagging voice that asks us if we are at one with our sense of present.

As Sokurov himself has phrased it:

These people are going off to world war, and to the Revolution, and those who survive the war, will perish in the Revolution. As they head downstairs, we feel that they are going to fall, and I can't do anything to prevent them from falling. This is what makes me sad. Everything has already happened. This isn't just a Russian experience because all people are headed down the stairs. Tragedy is shared by everyone; no country lives apart.[5]

Aleksandr Sokurov's Molokh (Moloch, 2000)
Hitler and Eva Braun: Out of touch with their era
This mismatching of protagonist (and by implication the viewer) and contemporary reality is a recurring theme of Sokurov's work. Dni zatmeniia (Days of the Eclipse, 1989) looks at the loneliness of living on the periphery in both the context of both an individual seeking freedom and a collapsing (Soviet) empire. Molokh (Moloch, 2000) and Telets (Taurus, 2001), the first two films in a projected tetralogy, have taken major world leaders and shown them as weak, spiritually vacant and totally alienated from the times in which they live.[6]

In a single breath

Sokurov has said that the idea of shooting a film in one shot came to him nine years ago and that it was because he was "sick of editing."[7] So, why now and why this film? And, indeed, why at all? There's something almost masochistic about the technical arrangements of the film. Shot on High Density (HD) video, the film was effectively recorded directly onto a non-rewriteable computer hard drive that stores 100 minutes of film. Without a second hard drive to hand, the result of a single error half way through filming the USD 2.5 million picture would have been catastrophic.[8] The risks seem particular bizarre in relation to the gain. The film could easily have been done with discreet edits—at one point the picture goes completely black as the camera passes through a darkened passageway—and especially so given that the film once transferred onto 35mm film is spliced up onto reels. Why so much risk for apparently little benefit?

Part of the answer can be found in the closest relative to Russkii kovcheg in Sokurov's oeuvre, Elegiia dorogi (Elegy to a Voyage, 2001), a lesser known 47-minute video work by Sokurov that is usually (and not entirely logically) classified as a documentary.[9] In retrospect, Elegiia dorogi is a rough sketch for Russkii kovcheg or a minor pendant piece, with Sokurov trying out many of the thematic elements that reappear in his more recent feature.

Aleksandr Sokurov's Elegiia dorogi (Elegy to a Voyage, 2001)
Elegiia dorogi : Another art gallery journey
Elegiia dorogi's journey is admittedly more spatial than temporal, with the film taking in locations in Russia, Finland and Germany, before finally arriving in the Boijmans Museum in Amsterdam. Also, the technical means are totally different, with Elegiia dorogi using cuts at a frequency that is highly unusual for Sokurov. Nevertheless, the similarities between the two films are uncanny. The most notable similarities are the dream-like unplotted narrative structures and the fact that both films employ subjective camerawork for a narrator who has no idea of where he is or where he is going.

On a more subtle level there is the question of identity, place and belonging. In Elegiia dorogi the inquiry is framed in existential terms; in Russkii kovcheg the context is more geographical and cultural. However, both of them are united in using screen narrative and formal devices ("rapid" montage and total lack of montage) in order to allow the viewer to internalise and experience the main protagonist's own questing perspective. (Hence, the camera standing in for the narrator's eye.)

In Russkii kovcheg, the endless take is a fundamental support to the mood of the film and in bringing the viewer into the film. Sokurov has spoken of the film unspooling for the audience "in a single breath" and has called it "a real dream."[10] Linking the film to a mode of thought that is both intimate and universal, Sokurov seeks to make the oddities of Russian history and its place in the world something we all share.

Sokurov's use of the single take is, therefore, more narrative and evocative than it is technical, and the director has little interest in exploring the medium of film for its own sake. Indeed, responding to a question about the making of Russkii kovcheg, Sokurov has insisted that, "Actually, my film was a very traditional shoot. I'm not an experimental filmmaker."[11] Whilst we can, perhaps, dismiss this as understatement, it is clear that the technical aspects of the film are, in Sokurov's eyes, at totally at one with the film's content.

Andrew James Horton

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Russian films at the 37th Karlovy Vary festival
Also of interest
About the author

Andrew James HortonAndrew James Horton is Editor-in-Chief of Kinoeye and Culture Editor of Central Europe Review. He also writes on central European culture for other journals, has edited the e-book The Celluloid Tinderbox and is being funded by the Leverhulme Trust to research the restructuring of central and southeast European image markets.


1. Nick Cave, "Classic cinema: I wept and wept, from start to finish," The Independent, 29 March 1998, features section, p 7. Reprinted online on the Nick Cave Collector's Hell site.return to text

2. The book has been published in English in translation a number of times, under a variety of titles, including Russia in 1839, Letters from Russia and Journey for Our Time.return to text

3. Joan Dupont, "A Russian director films the flow of time," International Herald Tribune, 25 May 2002, p 8.return to text

4. Sergei Eisenstein, Oktabyr' (October, 1927).return to text

5. Dupont, op cit.return to text

6. Both films have attracted considerable controversy for their portrayal of the two dictators as weak and powerless. The third film in the series will be on Emporer Hirohito. (Some sources refer to the series as a trilogy, which may either be misreporting or a scaling back in Sokurov's ambitions.)return to text

7. Dupont, op cit.return to text

8. In fact, the final film is the result of the third take. The first two takes were both aborted after five minutes, leaving 90 minutes on the hard drive—the exact time of the planned feature. See Mark Cousins, "Widescreen," Prospect, 27 June 2002.return to text

9. For more on this film, see Andrew James Horton, "The infinite journey," Kinoeye, vol 2, no 3, 4 February 2002.return to text

10. Dupont, op cit.return to text

11. Dupont, op cit.return to text

  Copyright © Kinoeye 2001-2018


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