Russian Ark (2002)

Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov

A ghost and a French marquis wander through the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, encountering scenes from many different periods of its history.

Less a single 90-minute bravura Steadicam shot through the Hermitage museum than a single breath that recognises the futility of attempting to embalm something as slippery as history… even if one finds something attractive in it. A transhistorical period piece, museum cinematic museum guidebook, an essay—cum—meditation on what history 'means'… momentous moments in the past come out of the (Russian) blue table service with the Marquis de Custine acting as our guide. The Marquis simultaneously withholds explanation of what might be going on, yet also gives out enough facile description to quickly become annoying. Perhaps with less of the clunky "ah, is this the…!" signposting then this would have been more magical, although perhaps his pedantic manner functions effectively as a mirror through which to glimpse the infinitely refracted chauvinism and inferiority complexes that Russian and European culture have of each other.

I loved the extended final sequence with all the guests leaving the ball. The year is 1913 and the party is well and truly over. Even if they don't know it.


Twenty years ago at the 55th Cannes Film Festival, cinema entered the digital era. Two films present at the festival, not just shot but projected digitally, acted as landmarks for the coming age, both exploring the never-before-possible capabilities of this new cinema technology. One was a Russian arthouse film. The other, an American franchise blockbuster. One reached for the raw, untampered unfolding of time. The other worked on the complete construction of the image from atomized movie bits. Russian Ark and Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones exist on the extreme ends of two wildly different directions that film aesthetics can reach towards. They are part of an argument as old as the medium itself and, wielding the same Sony [HDW-900] camera, they launched that dialogue into the 21st century.


The formal magic trick of Russian Ark is how it is at once completely truthful—it does not construct reality through editing, it preserves time and is upfront about perspective—but in being truthful this way, reveals the dishonesty inherent to the medium: Its staginess, its need for direction. While the camera may feel free-flowing, you will never see the crew walking right behind it. Russian Ark debates its own form the same way the two ghostly figures traversing the museum debate Russian culture; it is caught in a Gordian knot for us to try to untie.

Alex Lei (Paste Magazine)


The final result lands somewhere between Dante’s Inferno, with Custine acting as the Virgilian guide, the slipstream transference of Midnight in Paris, and the weirdest amusement park ride of all time. [This] is a film whose treatment of history is more geared toward sensation than explanation, and it therefore benefits greatly from the sense of artificiality that pervades, making the past both intensely vivid and as fragile as a puff of smoke, vanishing when directly engaged.

Jesse Cataldo (Slant Magazine)


The Hermitage-as-ark guards Russian history from the rest of the world at the risk of alienating its own people. […] The claustrophobic journey through the Hermitage continues and there is a sense that it could go on forever. The film’s heady yet far from impenetrable theory suggests that Russians take comfort in their closed-off sense of nationalism. [Yet] in stirring up all this feverish confusion, the film accomplishes something inimitable, replicating the feeling of being flung into the heat of a historical moment. It’s a reminder that while the flow of time is clear in hindsight, these are false classifications based on generalities; like the indefinable continental divide that bisects this massive nation, it’s something that eludes neat circumscription.

Ed Gonzalez (Slant Magazine)


Sokurov’s societal saga, though told non-chronologically, concludes in extravagant fashion with the [Great Royal Ball of 1913], one of Russia’s last momentous occasions before the rise of the Soviet Union less than a decade later. This sequence, like much of the film, only more opulent in construction (over 800 extras were utilized in this scene alone) and celebratory in spirit, portends a future of progress and triumph that we nonetheless know will never truly came to pass.

Jordan Cronk (Slant Magazine)