Russian Ark

From Academic Kids

Russian Ark (Русский ковчег) is a 2002 movie by Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov in which an unnamed and unseen (by the audience) narrator, voiced by the director, wanders through the Winter Palace (now the Russian State Hermitage Museum) in St. Petersburg, accompanied by a companion, the Marquis de Custine, who is visible to the audience (played by Sergei Dreiden). The observer and his companion meet various real and fictional personages from 300 years of Russian history, including the present, and see the Hermitage in its incarnation as the Winter Palace.

The Marquis de Custine was a real figure. He visited Russia in 1839 and wrote a widely-read book about his visit. A few real life biographical details of Custine's life are shown in the film. In real life, the Marquis' mother was friends with the Italian sculptor Canova and the Marquis himself was very religious. Throughout his book, "La Russie in 1839," Custine mocks Russia civilization of being a thin veneer of Europe on an Asiatic soul, hence the comments about Russia being a theater and the people he meets being actors. The Marquis' family fortune came from a porcelain works, hence the Marquis' interest in the Sevres porcelain waiting for the diplomatic reception. At the end of the film, at the last imperial ball in 1913, the Marquis appears to accept Russia as a European nation.

The movie is the world's first unedited feature motion picture: it was recorded in uncompressed high definition video and consists of a single unedited 90-minute Steadicam shot through 33 rooms of the museum filled with a cast of over 800 actors. The shot was executed by Steadicam operator Tilman BŁttner. (The innovative Rope was interrupted by film changes.)

Also noteworthy is that the fourth wall is repeatedly broken and re-erected; at times the narrator-director and the companion interact freely with the other performers, and at other times go completely unnoticed.

The beginning starts during a winter day with the arrival by horse drawn carriage of a small party of men and women to a minor side entrance of the winter palace. We, as camera, follow a member of this party, "The European", through numerous rooms of this grand palace. As each room is entered, we find ourselves in a distinct period of Russian history. The motion in time is nonlinear - moving back and fourth over several hundred years (similar to the more restricted temporal travel in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five).

We see the spectacular space for presentation of operas and plays in the era of Catherine the Great.

We see formal court proceedings, where Nicholas I is offered a formal apology by the Shah of Iran for the death of an ambassador.

We see the happy family life of children the last Tzar.

We see the formal changing of the Palace Guard.

We see dark periods where the museum's director whispers the need to make repairs during the rule of Josef Stalin. We see a desperate Leningrader make his coffin during the 900-day siege of city in World War II.

The culmination is a grand ball, with many hundreds of participants in spectacular period costume, and a full orchestra, with our long final exit with a crowd down the Grand Staircase of the palace.

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