I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Angels in the Architecture: Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark

by Anthony Galli
Nov. 24, 2017

Where do the dead go to spend the rest of their lives?

Assuming that there just may be some form of afterlife, are the dead guaranteed a spot at the table, at someone’s right hand, serenaded by celestial choirs and heavenly harps, basking in the eternal glow of forgiveness. Or is it something else entirely, at that other place, with that other guy, tormented and tortured and damned into infinity? Who knows?

Or what if, as some people believe, a spirit spends the rest of its immaterial existence at the spot where the body died, or where the body lived, either emanating from empty rooms and disturbing the children, or luxuriating in the location where their fondest memories were made. Again, who knows? There are so many competing views on the afterlife that it’s difficult to pick just one to aspire to. They all seem so interesting in their own enigmatic ways!

But, perhaps one’s afterlife will deposit him to someplace unknown, someplace confusing, somewhere that they were never meant to be. This could piss a guy off. Perhaps like the tour guide in Russian Ark, variously credited as the Marquis de Custine, or The Stranger, or The Narrator, whatever he is called, you are remanded to Russia’s State Hermitage Museum, formerly Catherine the Great’s Winter Palace, for eternity. Would this be such a bad thing?

Russian Ark follows the French Marquis throughout the enormous six buildings of the Hermitage in a single, uncut, 96 minute sequence, time-traveling through three centuries of Russian history along the way. The Marquis is a curmudgeonly tour guide who openly mocks Russian artists and sensibilities for lacking the imagination to create their own sense of national style, instead relying on European forms to admire and emulate. He compares the Hermitage to a replica of the Vatican, and harangues artists for copying Rembrandt, Rubens, and Van Dyck, among numerous other European painters.

In many ways, the Marquis is a quite disagreeable fellow. Within the context of a museum visit, and especially one as solemn and stately as the Hermitage, the Marquis seems to have no respect for decorum, as he breathes heavy, comes up close to sniff at the paintings and the ceremonial china, and mumbles to himself incessantly, like that guy in the theatre during a movie’s quietest scenes, or that person inconsiderately chatting away on his cellphone at high volume while you require absolute silence for concentration.

But, perhaps that is the point. Perhaps this character is meant to annoy and disturb us as we float through time past Peter the Great and Nicholas I and the Shah of Iran to the present day. Perhaps he was meant to disturb the complacency of the museum visitor to provide a personal, human context to the opulent court life of Russian aristocracy. It is an interesting perspective to consider, because the film does not traffic in the lives or concerns of the average Russian citizen, but on the magnificence in which its rulers lived. However, the performance by Sergey Dreyden, as the Marquis de Custine, who, coincidentally, wrote a definitive, and controversial, observation on Russian life in 1839, is perfect, a point that becomes especially clear when the circumstances surrounding the labor of actually filming of Russian Ark is taken into account.

Director Aleksandr Sokurov had the idea of Russian Ark in mind for fifteen years before technology allowed him to realize his vision. To film one, uninterrupted take between six buildings, with over 1,400 actors, and an enormous crew of technicians, assistant directors, costumers, make-up artists, etc., would have been impossible in Russia in the 1980’s when he first conceived of the film. As Sokurov has spoken of, the steady-cam technology that the film required had become available by the time of the filming in 2002, but its usual use was for 6-7 minutes at a time. The steady-cam operator forRussian Ark, Tilman Büttner, who inadvertently became the de facto Director of Photography, had to maneuver the 77-pound camera between rooms for the full hour and a half running time of the film.

Perhaps the cinematographer’s physical endurance is a metaphor for art’s physical and spiritual endurance to remain steadfast and true in the chaos of fluctuating times, a point that Sokurov seems to suggest as the film floats fluidly between centuries.

The film was also shot on December 23, 2002, which was the shortest day of the year, and also the longest night. It was the only time the Hermitage museum would allow closure for filming, and in order to utilize the natural light streaming in through the windows, the crew was forced to get everything right the first time. Well, it took four tries, but they did it.

Technically, Russian Ark is a marvel to behold, as everything from the extensive costuming to the elaborate ball at the end replicates the majesty and ceremony that Russian aristocracy reveled in while in power. The film even takes time to mention the famous and historic Hermitage cats. The film seems to suggest that time never stops, and that everything, eventually, becomes part of one vast present.

But, one must wonder…would being consigned for eternity to a museum where so many other lives are depicted, so many other circumstances that are not your own, be such a good thing?

Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.