By Melanie Robson
Melanie Robson is a Ph.D. candidate at UNSW in the School of Arts & Media. Her research examines the long take in European cinema.
[This is the text version of a paper presented on the day. It is a summary of a work in progress and in no way a finished product. Comments and feedback on the ideas in this paper are most welcome and encouraged. Please ‘leave a reply’ in the box at the bottom of this page.]
While preparing this talk, I came across a review of Russian Ark by Roger Ebert. He said that, whenever people discuss this film, they always begin by discussing its method, which of course is what immediately stands out the most.[i] Purely to break from tradition, I’m going to begin by discussing the plot and some of the film’s key themes.
Russian Ark is a film whose plot is difficult to pin down. The film is set in the Russian State Hermitage Museum (formerly the Winter Palace) in St Petersburg, Russia. Throughout, the camera adopts the viewpoint of an unseen and unnamed narrator (voiced by director Alexander Sokurov) who follows behind the protagonist as he wanders through 33 rooms of the museum. This protagonist is identified only as ‘the European,’ but is known to represent the Marquis de Custine, a 19th century French aristocrat.
In real life, the Marquis, himself a revolutionary in his home country, was the son of a woman guillotined in France. He travelled to Russia in 1838 and published an account of his travels, in which he was deeply critical of the country’s autocratic politics. While there, he had hoped to meet Tsar Nicholas and praise his version of liberty that differed profoundly from that of France.[ii] Significantly, Custine’s perception of democracy and liberty changed fundamentally while in Russia, and in the published version of his book, he states, “A peasant in the environs of Paris is freer than a Russian lord.”[iii]
Reflecting this attitude, throughout the film, the Marquis’s conversations with the unseen narrator indicate a significant difference of opinion about Russia’s historically fluctuating relationship with Europe and the European identity.
With each new room the Marquis enters, the film seamlessly shifts to another period of history, of which roughly 300 years are represented throughout. These 300 years predominantly take place in the pre-revolution era, for which Sokurov expresses a profoundly nostalgic attitude. The director revels in the grandiosity of Russian life, but at the same time (typical for Sokurov), he isn’t afraid to expose the weaknesses and frailties of political power and those who possess it.[iv]
The film doesn’t follow a linear path through history, but rather moves back and forth through time. It is often indiscernible what the precise time period is, which encourages a close viewing of the film to detect these subtle clues. Sokurov has stated that the events and periods of time represented in Russian Ark belong to the same “temporal space” for him; he believes that none of these times have ever stopped or ended, and indeed this is thematically reflected in the structure of the narrative.[v]
The ‘end point’ – if a film with such a fluid presentation of history can be said to have one – is roughly 1913: a fitting moment given the events that were to come in the following years that would drastically and fundamentally change Russian politics. I refer here, of course, to World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917. The vast three-hundred year history covered before this moment and the protagonist’s apparent nostalgia stands in stark contrast to what seems to be a fear or ambivalence towards the future shown by his reluctance to move forward in time at the end of the film. This closing scene is by far the grandest and most ambitious moment of the film. The event it depicts is a recreation of an event that occurred 99 years earlier almost to the day in the same room, at the same time, accompanied by the same orchestral music [CORRECTION: The final take was achieved on 21st December, 2001; the Ball at St Petersburg occurred on 23rd February, 1913].[vi]
It is here that I’m going to turn to the film’s method – firstly, because it is a topic worthy of discussion in itself, and secondly because it closely relates to my own research: my thesis explores the use of the long take in contemporary European cinema.
Russian Ark is unique and record-breaking in its use of a 99-minute almost constantly moving tracking shot. This has only been recently surpassed by Shahram Mokri’s Fish and Cat (2013), an Iranian film produced in 2013 that consists of an 134 minute long take. The film is also unprecedented in its balance of grand scale and other production challenges. The crew were working within very narrow parameters, which Roger Ebert has referred to as balancing in a “tight-wire act.”[vii] To list just a few of these production challenges and achievements:
- The film had a cast of over 2000 actors and three onscreen orchestras;
- The producers were given only two days to film in the museum, and so they needed to get the perfect take in that small window of time. The film was completed on the third take, after two mistakes occurred midway through the first attempts;
- Sokurov was attempting the longest ever steadicam sequence and the first ever uncompressed HD feature film;
- The film was recorded onto a portable hard drive that held only 100 minutes of footage. The final tracking shot ended up being 99 minutes and thus the cinematographer’s timing needed to be perfect [NB: the actual length of the tracking shot is sometimes quoted as 90, 95 or 96 minutes. The raw duration may have been altered in post-production].[viii]
In discussing this film, I’m also interested in the balance of the practical vs. the artistic. Sokurov has frequently emphasised his focus on the former, stating: “Shooting in a single take is an achievement in formal terms, but more than that it is a tool with the aid of which a specific artistic task can be resolved. It’s just a tool.”[ix] Further, he has indicated a lack of intention for achieving anything new cinematically; instead explaining that he is simply “sick of editing.”[x] This is a curious confession when we consider the film’s practical as well as aesthetic achievements – from an initial viewing of the film, one might assume that the director set out to break new ground.
Regardless of Sokurov’s intention, however, the result of this production method is more complicated than he indicates. The elaborate production and large numbers of actors involved means that the film’s success relies heavily on the precise co-ordination of hundreds of actors playing their part at the right time. On one hand, this scale of production enormously complicates the film’s execution in many ways, but on the other hand, it also necessitates such an elaborate tracking shot for the film’s success.
In Stanley Kauffman’s review of Russian Ark, he suggests that it is only in the long take that the film’s artistic achievements are revealed. He questions, “What is there intrinsically in the film that would grip us if it had been made—even excellently made—in the usual edited manner?…Everything we see or hear engages us only as part of a directorial tour de force.”[xi] The film has much to offer in terms of constructing a narrative of history as well as many production challenges that exist separately from the tracking shot itself, but I also argue that the full effect of such a large scale production would not be evident unless the viewer was aware of the complexity of the camera’s choreography.[xii]
After screening this film, I’m interested in discussing the following questions:
1. How does the unbroken tracking shot affect the viewer’s perception of realism?
2. What kind of relationship between viewer and screen does this create?
3. Does Sokurov’s film offer an advance towards the cinematic dream of constant subjective narration?
For this, I will offer some background. The long take has historically been associated with having the capacity to show the viewer ‘everything.’ Without edits or any kind of temporal interruption, we are presumably afforded a more complete view of the diegesis. With Russian Ark, I’m interested in questioning what the effect is of having no temporal interruptions or edits from beginning to end (an unprecedented achievement). Does this make us even more aware of the limitations of cinema? Are we more aware of what we are missing beyond the edges of the frame?
- What kind of image of history does Sokurov provide us with?
Sokurov presents us with a history in flux, and the European’s direct address to camera allows the viewer to actively participate in the ‘conversation’ of history presented throughout the film. Is this film reflective? Nostalgic? Critical? Or fearful of rapid change in both Russia and Europe?
[i] Roger Ebert, “Russian Ark Movie Review,” 31 January 2003, RogerEbert.com, April 2015. <http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/russian-ark-2003>
[ii] The publication I refer to is entitled Empire of the Czar, published in 1839. See Kenneth Barlett, “The Historical Perspective on ‘Russian Ark’,” Russian Ark: Seville Press Notes (Toronto, Ontario: Seville Pictures, 2002), 8. <http://people.ucalgary.ca/~tstronds/nostalghia.com/TheNews/RussianArk_SevillePressNotes.pdf>
[iii] Astolphe de Custine, Letters from Russia, ed. Anka Muhlstein (New York, NY: New York Review of Books, 2002) 178.
[iv] I refer to Sokurov’s tetralogy on power and corruption: Moloch (1999) [about Hitler], Taurus (2000) [about Lenin], The Sun (2004) [about Hirohito] and Faust (2011).
[v] “An Interview with Alexander Sokurov,” Russian Ark: Seville Press Notes, 4.
[vi] Kriss Ravetto-Biagioli, “Floating on the Borders of Europe: Sokurov’s Russian Ark,” Film Quarterly 59.1 (2005): 21.
[vii] Ebert, “Russian Ark Movie Review,” 2003.
[viii] “Production Notes,” Russan Ark: Seville Press Notes, 5.
[ix] “An Interview with Alexander Sokurov,” Russian Ark: Seville Press Notes, 3.
[x] “Production Notes,” Russan Ark: Seville Press Notes, 5.
[xi] Stanley Kauffmann, “Remembrances,” New Republic 227.25 (2002): 26.
[xii] This was further discussed after the film, when we questioned whether the long take creates the spectacle, detracts from the spectacle or is the spectacle itself.