Film review: Russian Ark (2002)

I recently watched this extraordinary film by Alexander Sokurov. It is set in the magnificent Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the entire film lasting 1 hour and 39 minutes was done in a single take, even though it has a massive cast of about 1,000 actors and 1,000 extras dressed in elaborate costumes and three orchestras, and moves though 33 rooms of the museum, making it not only the longest shot in film history, but also the first feature film ever created in a single take.

If that was not enough of a challenge, the museum would only close for 36 hours for the making of the film so everything had to be set up, filming done, and then removed within that time. Postponements were out of the question. Filming was begun on the afternoon of December 23, 2001. They had only a few hours of daylight in the Russian winter to complete the film. The first three takes had to be abandoned within the first 20 minutes or so due to glitches and that left them with just one final chance to do it. Furthermore, the camera batteries were also running low. But they managed to complete the last take just in time. There was just one cameraman Tilman Büttner to do the whole film and he had to lug around about 35 kg (over 70 lbs) of Steadicam equipment while walking through the vast museum and up and down stairs. He deserves a huge amount of credit for making it seem so smooth.

And yet the final product is a lush and opulent extravaganza that looks like it was filmed over months.

So why decide to do it in one take, given the immense challenges involved in both the choice of the setting and the huge cast and the nature of the story? This was not a small set with a few actors. I suspect that it is because artists are always stretching the boundaries of the possible. There have been many cases where directors have gone in for very long takes. Once it became technically possible for film sizes to capture content that lasts nearly two hours, the idea of making an entire film in just one take must have taken root in Sukorov’s mind. (Back in 2011, I discussed amazing long takes in the film I Am Cuba here.)

The whole film is seen through the eyes of an unnamed and unseen narrator who seems to be not sure if he is in a dream. He follows a caustic French aristocrat who is unimpressed by Russian culture, going from room to room through the museum with different rooms portraying different scenes from 300 years of Russian history.

On a winter’s day, a small party of men and women arrive by horse-drawn carriage to a minor, side entrance of the Winter Palace, dressed in the style of the early 19th century to attend a ball hosted by the Emperor Alexander I. The narrator (whose point of view is always in first-person) meets another spectral but visible outsider, “the European”, and follows him through numerous rooms of the palace. “The European”, a 19th-century French diplomat who appears to be the Marquis de Custine, has nothing but contempt for Russians; he tells the narrator that they are unable to create or appreciate beauty as Europeans do, as demonstrated by the European treasures around him. Each room manifests a different period of Russian history, although the periods are not in chronological order.

Featured are Peter the Great harassing and striking one of his generals; a spectacular presentation of operas and plays in the era of Catherine the Great; an imperial audience in which Tsar Nicholas I is offered a formal apology by the Shah of Iran, represented by his grandson Khosrow Mirza, for the death of ambassador Alexander Griboyedov in 1829; the idyllic family life of Tsar Nicholas II’s children; the ceremonial changing of the various regiments of the Imperial Guard; people touring the palace in the present; the museum’s director whispering the need to make repairs during the rule of Joseph Stalin; and a desperate Leningrader making his own coffin during the 900-day siege of the city during World War II.

A grand ball follows, held in the Nicholas Hall, with many of the participants in spectacular period costume and a full orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev featuring music by Mikhail Glinka, then a long final exit with a crowd down the grand staircase. The European tells the narrator that he belongs here, in the world of 1913 where everything is still beautiful and elegant, and does not want to go any further. The narrator then walks backwards out the hallway and sees many people from different time periods exiting the building together. As he watches them, the narrator quietly departs the procession, leaves the building through a side door and looks out upon the River Neva.

Here’s the trailer.

It appears that the full film is available for free on YouTube.

You can also see what went on behind the scenes in the making of this film. It is incredible that it could be pulled off. Even if you watch just a few minutes of this, it gives a good sense of the challenges that had to be overcome.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … about 1,000 actors and 1,000 extras …

    At 99 minutes, this means the average “actor” gets less than 6 seconds to speak their lines -- if the spoken script never pauses. Lots of chanting in chorus?

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