It’s hard to say whether Russian Ark can truly be considered a movie. There is no plot, no actual story to speak of. There is but one character, a mysterious member of the Russian aristocracy who serves as the protagonist’s guide through the Hermitage. It’s also hard to say whether the protagonist himself is a character. The movie is shot in first person POV and we never really learn anything about the person whose eyes we’re looking through. This protagonist could well be nothing more than an embodiment of the viewer, an easy way for us to take a stroll through the museum without having to set up any rules beforehand. On the other hand, there is clearly a focus on film making technique, as well as artistry in the way that the camera moves around and witnesses whatever is happening around it. Each doorway transports us into a different time frame, giving us a glimpse into the world of the Russian aristocracy and the rise and fall of the royal family, all in the space of a gander through the halls of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. There’s also some impressive camera work on display as Russian Ark is filmed in one, excruciatingly long take, Eisenstein be damned. The set piece are beautiful to look at, but one questions whether this beauty arises from the film’s own merits or from the awe-inspiring architecture and design of the building itself. And if the impressive visual quality of the film does indeed arise from the architecture, can it truly be labelled a film? The mise-en-scene is a key part of film making, its manipulation and use in the thematic structuring are, in a way, what separates film as a medium from still photography or video capturing. That, and the presence of a story and/or active characters, both of which, arguably, are absent from Russian Ark.
Nevertheless, Russian Ark presents us with an interesting, if brief, look into the glamorous life of the aristocracy. We see czars and emperors living in almost unfathomable luxury. There’s a total of 2000 actors in Russian Ark, all of them choreographed to look as if they are going about their regular business. This business, of course, is by no means regular by our modern standards. The Hermitage is the stage of an endless ball, the scene of perpetual intrigue and excitement. And this is precisely my main thematic qualm with the movie. There is no semblance of realism, not so much as a pretense to historical accuracy when it comes to the lives of its passing subjects. Not that realism is the point of this film, in fact I assume director Sokurov might’ve viewed it as a nuisance. Cinéma vérité this is not. But even so, knowing that the main focus lies elsewhere, the film insists to an almost worrying degree upon painting the aristocracy as a noble, beautiful relic of a bygone era that is sorely missed. The Russian Ark is a daydream of the wonders of excess and power. One might assume that there’d be at least some judgement passed on to the revelry of this ridiculously rich social class, considering it occurred during a time when the average Russian peasant lived a terrible life of toil and poverty. Instead, the film embraces this culture of hedonism and looks at it through the lens of nostalgia and longing. Many critics fell for this portrayal of Russia, lamenting the death of the world that Russian Ark introduces us to without considering its implications and context.
Some might find my criticism unfitting or see my complaints as deliberately missing the point. I’d implore such readers to consider the nature of Russian film over the years and the way that it has been used to manipulate its audience. Look at Sergei Eisenstein’s works. The man is rightfully considered one of the most important and influential directors and theorists of all time for his contributions to film form as we know it today, but most, if not all, of his movies were propaganda pieces for the new ruling class. The same can be said for many others even today, with the Ministry of Defense financing pictures that paint the annexation of Crimea as a noble and heroic deed. Film has been used as propaganda in Russia since its very inception and it’s important to bear that in mind when watching Russian films that concern themselves with politics and history. That said, it’s not so easy to discern propaganda from the genuine ideology of the film maker today. The Russian people are disillusioned with their reality, as is tradition for them, and in their desperation they look back fondly upon their past, a past that is impossible to truly know and understand due to the nature of time and its tendency to distort and dilute information. For many Russians, the good old days are those of pre-Bolshevik Russia. For others, the Soviet Union represents a state of affairs that they’d like to return to. It’s nigh on impossible to be objective when it comes to Russian history. It’s a topic that is too raw, too politically and ideologically charged to analyze without letting emotions get the best of whoever is taking part in the discussion. In a sense, my criticism of Russian Ark is more of a warning than a genuine complaint based on analysis of the film. Nuance is extremely important when exploring history and this is what Russian Ark pretends to do, albeit it not quite successfully. Granted, it’s a gorgeous exercise in cinematography and the “screw it, we’re doing it live” attitude towards film making, but one must bear in mind the thematic undertones of a movie while praising it for its objectivity or accuracy, as many Western critics have done. Nevertheless, Russian Ark is worth a watch, even if solely for its technical and visual merits.