russian ark

A remarkable cinematic achievement, Russian Ark (2002) is one of those films that simply must be seen on the big screen. It is an unforgettable experience. If it's ever revived at an art-house theater near you, do not miss it.

Plot and character development are non-existent on this ethereal tour of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. A rudimentary knowledge of Russian history is helpful but not necessary, as various figures from that country's illustrious past (Catherine II, the Romanovs) float by like fleeting visions. The effect is dreamlike; the viewer drifts through the sumptuous interior of this palace turned museum, and no explanation is given for the proceedings on display.

Russian Ark was filmed in one continual and unbroken shot, 89 minutes in length. Over a thousand lavishly costumed extras were utilized, with three full orchestras, during an extremely limited window of opportunity---director Alexander Sokurov had access to the Hermitage for only one day. The dvd includes a fascinating "making of" documentary that is almost as compelling as the film itself. How the entire endeavor was choreographed simply boggles the mind.

The spectacular closing scene offers a stunning finale whose power is difficult to describe. It's as close an experience to time travel as one is likely to have. The past becomes present, with the added poignance of hindsight. Unbeknownst to the people we are watching, their world is about to come crashing down: the revolution is imminent. For the moment, however, we are as a ghost passing through, observing the petty dramas and reveries of the human race.

Again, ideal viewing would be on as large a screen as possible. An old-time movie palace (such as Chicago's Music Box Theater, where I first watched it) would be entirely appropriate. After all, a work of art deserves a beautiful frame.


  1. I have long wanted to see this - frustratingly it hasn't been on at the BFI for years. Jx

    PS I like this new look for FF5...

    1. Ooh, thanks for the feedback, Jon! I seriously appreciate it. XOXO

  2. That scene is astonishing - a flight of imagination that seems also to be an absolute slice of (doomed) realiy. The incredible authenticity of those faces. Watching it, it seems to me, must be something like experiencing a Koyaanisqatsi of history (rather than of dystopia).