The Russian Ark. Directed by Alexander Sokurov. Starring Sergey Dreiden, Maria Kuznetsova, Leonid Mozgovoy. Written by Anatoly Nikiforov, Alexander Sokurov. Cinematography by Tilman Buettner. Music by the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra. Film: 2002, 99 min., 35 mm, color, Dolby Digital Video: 2002, 95 min., HD, 16:9, Dolby Surround. The State Hermitage Museum, Hermitage Bridge Studio, Egoli Tossell Film AG production, Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, Fora-Film M, Celluloid Dreams. English Sub-titles. Special pre-screenings: Lincoln Plaza Cinema, New York City, December-January, 2002-3. Nuart Theater, Los Angeles, January 2003.
And what if history were to happen only once, but as a repetition? What if history is nothing but this singular repetition, happening for the first time as its own doubling? An event recorded only in one take, only a singular and irreversible take one, cut and print?
History would then happen as if it were a theater performance, but happening only once, irreversibly, and without the possibility of repetition or rectification. It would constitute itself as an archive which keeps only things that are original, singular and unique, but deposited there for future encounters. A museum and a repetition of the future.
What kind of spectacle would be capable of reproducing such a historical event? What would it give or allow to be seen? The question that will have to keep us in suspense is whether such a historical configuration may be given to visibility at all. How can one see history?
Samuel Weber recently described this structural configuration in his book Mass Mediauras. Commenting upon Jacques Derrida's notion of iterability (the capacity of a sign or a mark to produce itself, but only as a repetition), Weber points out that every historical event may be split between its own originary inauguration, but can be recognized as such only if it also appears as a repetition that is not the same with itself. Weber goes on to comment that:
What Derrida calls, in French, le reste--here translated as a 'remainder'--can be said to escape 'the logic of presence' because, paradoxically, it does not merely come after that which is identifiable-the 'mark' or 'element' that it is said to 'split.' It at the same time comes before it. … For the dynamics of iterability replaces a logic of presence by what might be called a graphics of simultaneity, in which, for instance, what comes after also and simultaneously comes before (Weber 1996, 140).
The aporetic notion of remainder and inerrability as understood by Jacques Derrida and Samuel Weber, provides a fruitful ground for understanding historical events.
Such a ground makes it possible to account for the singularity of an event - for example, how it is possible that something happens for the first time, uniquely and singularly,but at the same time, it is possible to interpret the event in its historicity, which is not closed in the past, by means of iterrability, thus allowing for recognition and future actualizations.
This approach makes possible a theoretical reconciliation, so to speak, of two opposing tendencies in historical philosophy or in history tout court: the messianic tendency in its religious, apocalyptic dimension (that would include, for example, the "weak Messianism" of Walter Benjamin), and the notions of the end of history (understood in Hegelian terms), which foreclose history for any futurity.
The Petrine Reforms and the Archive of the Future
The Russian culture can eminently accommodate such a "synthetic" approach. Divided between messianic tendencies in their nihilistic or communist aspirations, and in the sensibility that it ends history as its teleological fulfillment, Russian culture cannot be properly understood without taking into account the contradictory genealogy of its modernist origin.
On the one hand, it is steeped in the Petrine reforms of Peter the Great, whose early 18th century reforms, a Russian bourgeois revolution in fact, have given ground for both sensibilities. After Peter's intervention into history at the beginning of the 18th century, initiated by a self-perception of Russian backwardness (being "after" all other nations), Russia inherited the sense of an immense acceleration and Messianic futurity.
Therefore, Russia placed itself in a position to be followed by other countries, which will forever be "after" it in return. In its religious form, such a self-perception of acceleration and futurity - a model of the future for other nations - was actualized as hiliasm, a religious fervor claiming that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ has already happened and found its true and real, its literal (could we say "materialist"?) fulfillment in Russia.
Russia itself, in this millenarian self-perception, is the body of Christ or its universal church. In its secular dimension, which is closely related to the millenarian, it took the form of the Russian/Soviet Communism.
Russian/Soviet Communism, therefore, comes to end the epoch of the Petrine traditions that has made it possible. At once a radical erasure (the "end" of history) and a messianic, modernist acceleration, it has wedged a caesura in Russian history and detached itself from its formative origin.
But at the same time, it served as the teleological fulfillment of the Petrine traditions. The reforms of Peter the Great were simultaneously strengthening Russia and generating a destructuring (perhaps destruction/deconstruction/reconstruction) of its national identity by their radical acceptance of Western cultural models. The Soviet Revolution was on one level an explicit populist dismantling of these models, but by means of the same modernist techno-phantasms that they tried to eradicate.
The Soviet Revolution, in a manner of self-immunization (by means of which the mechanism of preservation ruins the body it is trying to preserve), attempted to protect itself from the very thing that allowed it to constitute itself, from the Petrine and its own revolutionary aspiration. After the Soviet Revolution, a sense of a loss occupies the space in Russian historical identity, since the past prior to it becomes inaccessible for historical continuation, restoration, and mourning.
The Petrine period becomes bracketed as a melancholic loss: neither "properly" mourned, nor quite forgotten. It is a period of melancholic desire that yet remains to be "worked through" in Russian history, politics, culture, and art. It therefore constitutes Russia's not-yet-mourned future.
I have argued that in many of its structural aspects Russia is a space that comes "after" history. What is a work of art that would be able to appear not only as a symptom of that historical condition, but its self-reflexive formalization?
Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark is precisely such a unique film that sets itself up as a search "after" history. It reproduces history, but as a unique event, an archivization that wavers between a "live" gaze at history and a museified iterability, its return as a "dead," self-enclosed and spectralized spectacle.
Or, to be more precise: it is a movie that fashions itself after history. It is also a movie that could mark the beginning of the assessment of the Petrine tradition as the site of melancholic desire for Russian identificatory aspirations.
Action Without Cut
What "happens" in the movie? The camera opens from darkness into light and "sees" a group of young officers and beautiful women enter a palace. The palace is the Ermitazh (the Hermitage as transcribed in the West), which has been made visible in the opening credits, since the name of the museum, which serves as the producer of the film, is featured as prominently as the title of the movie itself.
(This introduces an abyssal self-referential dimension or opens it up as the very beginning of the movie about the museum, made by the museum. The frames of the movie are doubled from the very beginning, even before the first scene appears on the screen.)
The voiceover tells us that it must be the beginning of the 19th century, and that the voiceover itself is a memory of a vision that belongs to the camera, while the gaze says that it is blind.
From the opening moment to the end of the movie, there will not be one single cut or interruption. The film is made in one long take by a single, unedited, steadicam shot.(The filming took place on December 23, 2001, and the successful take took place between noon and 1:30PM. About the event, see the interview with Sokurov and the article by Svetlana Proskurina in Isskustvo kino, 2, 2002. The event is truly unique by all standards. The coordination of filming a one take film rests on the immense professionalism of all participants that all worked here on a minimal budget. According to Sokurov's own assessment, of the nine hundred actors and extras that promised to come on the day of filming only a handful did not show up. The filming took place among the original artwork which is priceless, the original Wedgwood dining service and the Sevres glassware by Catherine the Great is filmed, for example, and hundreds of extras ran by parallel routes to catch up with the action and appear in subsequent scenes. The material risks were great and one cannot but admire the achievement but also marvel at the trust of the curators towards Sokurov and his crew who themselves had to rush through the rooms with the steadicam. The camera work is not without its heroic aspects. According to Sokurov, Tilman Buettner was chosen as the steadicam operator for his capacity to physically carry and work the heavy camera with gyroscopes attached to the body (about 9.5 kilograms) for one and a half hour. (The standard time for such an activity, according to Sokurov in the interview, is about five minutes, maximum seven-eight minutes). Here, the camera operator had to carry the steadicam for several kilometers. That, according to Sokurov, reduced the number of cameramen capable of such a feat to only a handful (Sokurov, Proskurina, 2002, 12).) It follows the group throughout many stages and "scenes" of Russian history, from the period of Peter the Great, to the last ball (where the group will finally end) given by Czar Nicholas II just before WWI in 1913, and therefore before the Revolution of 1917. (Glinka's music, written in honor of the Czar, is played by the Mariinskii Theater Orchestra during the last ball.)
The camera then follows the crowd exiting the ballroom and opens onto the misty Neva and murky, blue waters outside the palace. The diegetic time therefore traverses the entire epoch of Petrine reforms, from the early 18th century, to its end in 1913. Throughout the movie, the camera also follows another character, who is said to be Marquis de Custine - the author of the famous travelogues Letters from Russia. Russia in 1839 (Custine, 1951; 1975) - who is engaged in a dialogue with the Russian voiceover, which is attached to the cinematic gaze.(Custine is played by Sergei Dontsov who is an actor of a remarkable talent. His Custine is cranky, boorish and lucid, an embodiment of a Westerner displaced in an anachronistic narrative and in the country in which he is at odds with its customs.)
The exchanges are in Russian as Custine, to his surprise, also speaks that language. It is, therefore, Custine whom the camera follows and who cathects the camera movement and the gaze, and creates the opportunity for the action to move from room to room and epoch to epoch.
(This movement is not so linear and sequential, and often wavers in an undecided and aporetic temporal and spatial opening.)
At the end, in the scene where the camera and the voiceover leave the ballroom (the track shot descends the famous Jordan Staircase built by Rastrelli and restored, after a fire, by Stasov, following the crowd now comprising of characters from various different eras - Pushkin is seen, together with officers dressed in uniforms from various epochs of the Petrine empire), Custine is shown refusing to follow the camera and remains enclosed in the historical epochality of the Petrine tradition.
In temporal terms, he refuses to cross the threshold of the chronotopic, diegetic limitations (the year is 1913, the eve of the war and the Revolution) which, we are made to understand, the voiceover and the cinematic gaze do not share. They belong to the "present" moment: they know the future history (and therefore the looming catastrophe).
The Arkive Fever
The Russian Ark depicts scenes from Russian history as they "develop" in front of our own eyes, and are all set in the building that represents, more than any other, the site of Russian glory during the Petrine period: the Ermitazh, or the Winter Palace, a building commissioned and built during the reigns of Elisabeth and then Catherine the Great by Rastrelli Junior, the son of the first and foremost Petrine architect, Bartolomeo Rastrelli (Senior).
The Winter Palace was from the start also conceived as a museum, since Catherine the Great made the first commissions and put them on display in the palace. It could be argued that the movie, The Russian Ark, takes place between the "ark," which shelters the "live" events of history, and the archive, its filmic and reproductive mark.
Another aspect of the movie relevant for the understanding of history as the post-historic, or in this case, post-catastrophic development, is the setting indicated by the title. The Russian Ark is a movie taking place after the catastrophe of history as the Apocalyptic deluge has happened, and after, or in anticipation of which the selected cultural and political artifacts will have been saved for the future.
The non-represented catastrophe, which is dramatized as the blindness of the narrator/gaze/voiceover, is the Soviet Revolution. The movie, which is diegetically prior to the revolution, "takes place" also as a post-revolutionary, post-catastrophic representation of the rupture of Russian history.
The movie that films Ermitazh shares the post-historical conditions of the city of St. Petersburg itself, taking place, just like the city, "after the modernist utopia and after the avant-garde/modernist catastrophe."(Groys, 1993, 364.)
The dramatic tension of the movie as it pertains to the question of identification (and the Russian national identity, for example), lies in the fact that the space of commemoration relies also on artifacts that have nothing to do with Russia, but are entirely imported from the West, and thus, structurally from without this "site of memory."
It is, therefore, structurally the site of what has been called by Jacques Derrida an "archive fever," "Because the archive, if this word or this figure can be stabilized so as to take a signification, will never be either memory or anamnesis as spontaneous, alive and internal experience.
On the contrary: the archive takes place at the place of originary and structural breakdown of the said memory."(Derrida 1996, 11.) The Russian Ark is, therefore, also a movie that thematizes its own post-historicity, archivization, and arkivisation, but at the very place of its historical disintegration.(It may seem somewhat arbitrary, but the comparison needs to be made: The Russian Ark inscribes itself in the line of recent films that thematize archivization, archeology and arkeology, inaugurated most prominently by Steven Spielberg's The Raiders of the Lost Ark (1986). It is significant that in the culminating scene, when the ark is opened, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) admonished Marion (Karen Allen) "not to look," therefore capturing the invisible origin of the film's representational logic, not unlike the Russian Ark which opens out of blindness and onto the blindness of the historical archive and the ark. In addition, in Spilberg's movie, the last scene shows the storing of the Ark of the Covenant in the bureaucratic arkive of the American government.)
All the scenes in the movie are set in the Ermitazh, or the Winter Palace, as the events oscillate between the museified representation of history and its "live" development and theatralization. We are led by the camera through various rooms, from the cellars to the grand ballroom, and from the scenes with Peter the Great to the last imperial ball.
The movie sets up the veritable "who's who" of Russian history. Part of its appeal must be, certainly for the Russian viewer, to recognize the familiar figures of Russian history and simultaneously to attempt to recognize or identify some of the famous paintings that appear in the movie and that are displayed in the Ermitazh of today: El Greco's Peter and Paul, Van Dyck's Virgin With Partridges, and Rembrandt's Sacrifice of Isaac.
The film is, therefore, irreducibly divided between the representation of history and its "live" staging. But, the site of the return of history by means of the familiar images also never coincides with identification. History "returns" in this movie to the place of its incessant alienation.
The singular "eventness" of the plot is underscored not only by the events themselves, but by the very means of its registration and archivization. The whole movie is shot in one take with a high-resolution video camera, thus making it the longest shot in the history of cinema.
The movie, in that respect, appears as an amazing achievement, succeeding in pulling off a colossal choreography. The action of the movie required that the entire mise-en-scene be rehearsed and repeated for this one and singular take. It succeeded in the third take after two false starts. An entire epoch known as the Petrine period of Russian history is therefore set in front of the viewer in one gaze which does not blink.
What would appear to belong to history and to the museum, is taken up and revived by a "live" shot of the video camera.
The Blindness of History
The movie starts out of blindness, which opens onto the vigilance of history. Or rather, already museified history and, in than sense, "history." Perhaps, the movie does not open, or begin, but begins as an imitation of history, fashioning itself after it, as its iteration, repetition, mimesis. And, at the same, time, as its unique, singular and inimitable record, memory and archivization. The Russian Ark is a movie about the Russian arkive fever.
The narrator voiceover inaugurates a loss of memory from the very beginning. "I open my eyes and see nothing, what happened to me I do not remember." [Orkryvaiu glaza i nichego ne vizhu, chto s mnoi proizoshlo ne pomniu].
The movie about the archive therefore opens on nothingness and the loss of memory, or the incapacity to commemorate, (I do not remember anything), it unfolds as its own mnemonic and visual erasure. We are told that it is sometime in the 19th Century and that we are in Petersburg.
The narrator is invisible to the events, as so are we, as he claims that "they do not notice me." The effect of spectrality which has been called the "visor effect," allows us to observe while not being seen, it spectralizes the narrator and the narrative which will have, from the very start, proceeded in the suspended time-space of uncertainty, ghostliness and spectrality.
And, at the same, time, in a suspension which is unbearable and which cannot be sustained. The film, therefore, like the gaze, floats.
The unceasing gaze at the vagaries and the catastrophe of history cannot but remind one of the angel of history, Angelus Novus, as described by Walter Benjamin: "His eyes are staring… His face is turned towards the past…. [and] sees one single catastrophe…" (Benjamin, 1968, 257).
The unclosing eyes of the angel of history is reproduced in this movie as the unclosing monocular gaze of the one long single take which records history in statu nascendi. That is, at the site of its production and commemoration, its life and its ruination.
The angel of Sokurov's movie is therefore both vigilant and blind, he can see history and cannot see it at the same time. That may explain numerous references to blindness.
The film begins by the narrator's avowal, "I open my eyes and I do not see anything" [orkryvayu glaza I nichego ne vizhu]; a woman visitor is blind and caressing an angel, and is herself referred to as an angel thus authorizing the analogy with Angelus Novus; in the second appearance in the movie of Catherine the Great we see her with children playing blind man's buff; and, not least of all, all this taking place in the museum which has within its permanent collection some of the most famous pictures that depict the theme of blindness: Lucas van Leyden's The Healing of the Blind Man of Jericho, Domenico Feti's The Healing of Tobit, and Bernardo Strozzi's The Healing of Tobit (one of the centerpieces of the Ermitazh collection), Kerstaien de Kueninck's Landscape With Tobias and the Angel, Jean Bilevelt's (Giovanni Biliverti's) The Angel Parting from Tobias, and Abraham Bloemaert's Landscape With Tobias and the Angel (In the Old Testament Apocrypha Tobit was a blind Israelite whose sight was restored by the angel Raphael after the heroic exploits of his son, Tobias, who caught a fish and used its bile to cure his father's eyesight. The relationship between the gaze and melancholia [black bile-melain chole] will be discussed later).
Such an excessive investment in what is not given to sight reminds us of the fact that any museum, as such, may be "seen" as the space in which the very visibility of the gaze is both displayed, but also obscured and given over to the pictorial representation and mnemonic prosthesis of visibility.
The Biblical narrative about Tobias tells, as Jacques Derrida noted in his Memoires of the Blind, a book written about another revolutionary museum, the Louvre, that "what Tobit finally sees… is neither this or that thing, this or that person, but his very sight" (Derrida 1993, 28).
The one-take film (which is only technologically possible with video) fashions itself after history in that there can be no montage, no cut and paste, no changes, additions, subtractions, do-overs.
You can't fix it in the mix, as they say in the music biz. What's done is done. It's the viewpoint of the angel of history, blown backwards into the future and unable to avert his eyes from the pile-up of catastrophe...
And when the narrator describes his blinding as having occurred in the tumult of the revolution, during the violence of the interrupted ball... this blindness is of course also a memorial crisis. There's a hinge in the film's structure: after this, we do not see history's participants in the same way.
We see them as museum goers, as spectators. The historical pageant with its choreographed hurtling through time and space becomes a walk through a museum. The narrator's blindness marks a turning point between historical regimes and scopic ones too.
Spectatorship as the primary modality of action in the hermitage post-revolution (along with the rhetoric of museological display and consumption) is produced by and through the instant of blindness and forgetting and as this rhetoric of display, consumption, connoisseurship, etc.
The blind museum guide is an interesting figure here: it is as if her actual blindness protects her from the post-revolutionary blindness of the museum and allows her an anachronistic insight.
That is why Sokurov's angel of history in his/her excessive vigilantism may be blind, and the movie itself may be seen as an oscillation between the utmost capacity to see and visibility and relentless darkness.
We also hear that we are "much too late," the arrival to the museum takes place at the end of history. From the underground chambers of the Winter Palace, in which we see Peter the Great, we ascend the spiral staircase [vyntovaia lestnitsa] and hear about the "primitive order of Peter the Great" [pervobytnyi poriadok Petra Velikogo].
The narrator, it turns out, has a twin, a "European," whom the "Russian" narrator follows through the film. The "Russian" narrator often repeats the last sentences or the entire statements of the "European," whom he follows through the museum. The encounter between Russia and Europe, as staged in this dialogue between Custine and the Russian voiceover/gaze, is that of parodic repetition, which corrodes the visual certainty and narrative authenticity.
It also impregnates the entire narrative structure with the spatio-temporal doubling which precludes any interpretive authenticity or even an unequivocal temporal and spatial orientation. Everything is doubled and ghostly, an authentic and singular event and its own parody and repetition.
The narrative actually starts in the mode of this contre-temps, counter-temporality, whereby the beginning, the origin of filming is split between the two narrators, and unfolds as a di-vision of its discursive and cinematic scene.
The themes of the delay (the ball participants are rushing, having come late to the ball, often get lost in the palace), coming too late, are necessarily tied and should be read in light of this irreducible counter-temporal narrativity, whereby one or the other narrator or the events represented will not be in or on time.
The narrative itself shifts without resolution between the sight and site which is irrevocably late, after history, in the space of the museum, and another, which belongs to the Russian narrator, who narrates the knowledge of history and its events and even its "future" outcomes.
The counter-temporality and the division of the filmic gaze is additionally (or also, again, from the very start), given over to the Russian director Sokurov and the director of the camera, the German Tilman Buettner, to make a movie that made film history. To which history it does, and does not belong properly speaking, as the medium used to narrate or record the event is that of the video camera and not film.
No film stock was used to cast this long gaze on Russian history, and we can say that in filmic terms, the camera never closes its eye. While the technical production of filming still may seem to operate as an endless gaze which never blinks-as opposed to the human one, the video camera registers the visual input by means of screening and without even the flipping of the camera shutter of the 24 frames a second.
The open eye of the camera here not only flows without a cut or an interruption, but its mode of registration belongs to the uninterrupted archivization of the video camera which does not blink. To the rupture of the choreography, montage and the filmic is juxtaposed the flow of the infinite digital and electronic gaze.
And to the flow of history is also, thematically, juxtaposed the interruption of the mnemonic and the museic, as the film (we will call it that for practical reason, as well as for the fact that it still keeps the remnants of the cinematic: it is transferred to film for reasons of distribution and projection, it is shown in movie theaters, etc.) wavers between the narrative of history in which it "actively participates" and the museic or museific intervention, a self-reflexive rupture of its own narrative.
The division in the production of the film is underscored by the scandal that followed shortly after the release of the movie which entered a festival competition. (It is in the genre of film festivals to operate by means of scandals. Nevertheless, the nature of this particular one pertaining to The Russian Ark relates specifically to the forces that it so brilliantly thematizes within the movie: the chiasmatic rift/bond between the techno-scientific paradigm of Russian reforms which divides its culture and identity).
The film has been nominated recently for "technological direction" by the European Film Academy which no doubt wanted to recognize the full credit that a one shot with the steadicam by Tilman Buettner brought to this movie. (Buettner brought to the production the experience of his acclaimed and successful camera-work in Tom Tykver's Run, Lola, Run).
The nomination met with a very strong official protest on the part of Alexander Sokurov, who objected the fact that what in his view belongs to the totality of artistic achievement is divided or split by this nomination which recognizes the technical reproducibility which in his view is only an integral element of the esthetic totality. "It seems that the role of the German specialists has been artificially overestimated in this national Russian project - a project that could only be realized in Russia, with the participation of the State Hermitage and the Russian Ministry of Culture. Without the participation of the Russian state, which gave support in years which have been difficult for Russia and for European projects, the planning and work on 'The Russian Ark' would have been impossible. …"(A. Sokurov, Film Director; A. Deryabin Producer" St. Petersburg, Russia, November 29, 2002" (Sokurov, Deryabin, 2002).)
The Russian Ark thematizes throughout the movie the anxiety which the gaze of the other epitomized by Custine induces in the narrator who serves as a pacifying double of some of Custine's most critical remarks, and whose passage through the Ermitazh/Winter Palace is closely followed by a personage who is described in the credits as a "spy."
The totality of vigilance enacted by the one take, (cathected by Custine and multiplied from several perspectives: the narrator, the spy) can be summed up by Chaadaev's famous dictum in his Apology of a Madman, (written in 1836) that Russia exhausts itself in this vigilance: it cannot take its eyes from the West.
This di-visibility which the West brings to Russian identity may be said to constitute the representational space of The Russian Ark. In that sense, the text of the film directed by Sokurov articulates an insight into the aporetic conflict by means of which Russia achieves its identity.
And it is precisely that brilliant articulation that is disavowed and has to be recuperated on the ideological level by the author of the movie, and precisely in the name of the "totality of artistic process" which, in this case is, of course, "Russian."("For the first time, in the end credits of 'The Russian Ark,' we focused the attention of professionals and viewers on a key aspect of modern film production. As a result of the development of new technologies, it's often impossible to see the borderline at which the technical provisions of the project end and the creative act of forming the image of the film as a whole begins. The realization of this unexpected and complex conception demonstrated that the absolute author of the images of 'The Russian Ark' is, of course, the director, rather than the steadicam operator" (Sokurov, Deryabin, 2002).) It is as if the director has to extract precisely the otherness of the technical mastery from the very achievement of the movie in the name of the purity of ethnic origin.
That anxiety, needless to say, which in the movie is energized and turned into the creative impetus of the film, here appears as the blind spot, and incapacity to see the ideological implications of this protest against the very genealogy of the movie. Sokurov appears as the jealous twin of his European (br)other.(Things are not made better by the promotional material that accompanies the movie at its official release site for the American distribution. In it, Sokurov further attempts to recuperate the movie for the ideology of Russian national identity, speaking of America as a young country, without culture, and The Russian Ark, the Ermitazh, as the ship which will save the world: "And that the time has again come for people to build arks and that there must be no delay, and that the Russians have already built their Ark, but not just for themselves-they will take all with them, they will save all, because neither Rembrandt, nor El Greco, nor Stasov, nor Raphael, nor Guarenghi nor Rastrelli will allow an ark such as this to disappear or people to die…" The aristocratic, "Nietzschean" and hyper-aesthetic aspect of the movie which revels in the "Europeannes" of Russian culture, or her participation, on equal footing, in the co-archivization of the European tradition, on the ideological level has to be denounced and refuted and Russian identity reinscribed in the predictable messianic and sacrificial nationalist narrative which is at odds with the dominant inspiration and direction of The Russian Ark. It is as if Alexander Sokurov did not understand the most interesting elements which makes this movie function, particularly as they pertain to a reflection of the functioning of the Russian culture and the historical implications of the Petrine tradition. Addressing the film as "my child" he repeats the predictable Oedipal blindness and misunderstandings at the heart of any childrearing.)
First Protagonist: The Museum
The modernization of Russia undertaken by Peter the Great found its epitome in the space of the first Russian museum, the Kunstkamera. In it, Peter the Great put on display a collection of stuffed animals, stones and minerals, but also body parts and fetuses in formaldehyde.
Thus, Russian modernization and the first revolution took place as the museification of Russia. The introduction of the enlightenment took the form of the museological space, whereby the taxonomy of animals, minerals, monsters and pickled body parts served both as the revolutionary opening marking an acceleration of history, and or as a post-deluvian, post-catastrophic commemoration of Russia's entrance into history.
(Noah's ark, of course, could be seen as the first attempt at taxonomization of the animal world, and a museum of "natural" selection. This should be kept in mind when we attempt to understand the role of the museum in Sokurov's Russian Ark).
The Kunstkamera thus serves not as the place where Russia collected the memory of its own past, or the aura of its national identity, but the space of revolutionary anticipation of its own imperial expansion and glory. It is the site not of commemoration, but quite the contrary, as has been noted about museums in general, it is the product of "the revolutionary dimension of museums and their invitation to rethink culture apart from the pathos of roots, belonging and identity" (Maleuvre, 38).
Maleuvre's useful generalization of the museum applies to the Kunstkamera as well: "As such, the museum shows that there is no culture without uprooting, without forgetting, and that culture is always, in a (Nietzschean) sense, artistic culture" (Maleuvre, 39).(In the lapidary words of Donald Preziosi: "Above all, museums are social instruments for the fabrication and maintenance of modernity" (Preziosi, 1994, 141).)
This revolutionary dimension of the Kunstkamera should be remembered since it is Peter the Great who first started building museums in Russia and who gave the first jolt to the accumulation of the cultural goods that will serve as the foundation of what will become the Ermitazh, the glorious state museum that is the major protagonist of The Russian Ark.
This aspect of the Kunstkamera also leaves a trace of a historic presence at the site of archivization, the originary injunction to keep and preserve the law of the enlightened tyrant, and therefore preserves the memory of the political impact of the Kunstkamera as the founding and repressed archive of both the Ermitazh, St. Petersburg, and the film about them.
In the movie the other main protagonist, the European Marquis de Custine, has a very keen sense of smell, and what he smells all the time is formaldehyde. That smell of formaldehyde permeating Ermitazh belongs actually to the other museum, the Kunstkamera, and may be seen as a metonymical trace of the first Russian archive.(I take the liberty to draw attention here to my book The Returns of History: Russian Nietzscheans After Modernity, and particularly to the chapter titled "Museums." In it, I discuss the wax effigy of Peter the Great now on display in the Ermitazh, and the questions of the form/aldehyde of history, as well as the issues of the museum in the age of technical reproducibility. My analysis in the present article relies and draws on this chapter. I have treated the question of Russia's "post" historicity, on the other hand, in my "'After': Russian Post-Colonial Identity" to which the present article serves as a "post" script.)
The formaldehyde permeating the Ermitazh as detected by Custine may also indicate a certain self-reflexive intervention on the part of Sokurov, indicating a congruence between the total preservation of "life" in one single take, as he does in this film, and the archivization by means of preservation in formaldehyde, which keeps the formal features of organic life self-same and seemingly without any representational filter.
The association between filming and taxidermy is not an arbitrary one. Inasmuch as taxidermy preserves the skin in formaldehyde and therefore allows the organic to be captured in its eternal non-dead, spectral appearance, so is the film, "the little skin," pellicule, fixed in the post-production processing which stops the processes of chemical decomposition. Both offer a representation of skin and flesh, as Lyotard says in his essay "Acinema," "as the [transparent] flesh posing itself" (Lyotard, 358).
That the Ermitazh should be seen as a palimpsest of the Kunstkamera is made visible in the movie by the fact that at the beginning of the movie, and at the very bottom, in the lower depths and cellars of the Winter Palace/Ermitazh, the first royal personage we encounter is that of Peter the Great.
Thus, the first archival inscription in the foundation of the museum, as depicted by Sokurov, belongs to the figure of the first Russian reformer. In addition, it is actually Peter the Great that first initiated the accumulation of art and whose collection served as the basis for building the Ermitazh. Geraldine Norman, the author of a recent definitive history of the Ermitazh, also points out that the Ermitazh keeps the trace of the originary doubling between the Petrine museum and a subsequent collection of art undertaken by (most prominently) Catherine the Great:
Peter was also an art collector and founded Russia's first public museum, the so called Kunstkammer, whose elegant Baroque building can still be admired from the windows of the Hermitage, a little downriver, on the banks of Vasilevsky Island. While the treasures of the Hermitage include imperial acquisitions dating back as far back as the reign of Ivan the Terrible (1547-84), its first great works of art were acquired by Peter. It is with him, rather than Catherine, that the history of the Hermitage museum really begins (Norman, 1998).
The Ermitazh therefore oscillates both in the movie and in history between the museum space, the space of commemoration of the past, and the space of political turmoil, revolution and historical disruption. The film and the museum both oscillate between these two regimes of representation.
The Insistence of History
The representational wavering of the movie is underscored further by the fact that on some occasions the protagonists enter the historical epochs following the Petrine epoch bracketed by the diegetic limits of the movie (beginning with Peter the Great, ending with the last pre-revolutionary ball of 1913).
There are three explicit and for the film emblematic narrative intrusions into the times after the revolution: in one scene, Custine enters a room during the siege of Leningrad during which the museum collections were almost entirely evacuated to Siberia and the museum was left with empty frames. A carpenter is shown making his own casket as he is dying of famine, just like thousands that did during the siege. The scene in which a carpenter is shown making the casket stands, emblematically, for the film as a crypt,
a secret, and a testamentary historical monument. It displays its own post-catastrophic production.
The empty frames in this scene may indicate something that I would like to suggest metonymically applies to the entire museum as represented by the film: that its aesthetic or political representation in the movie may be nothing but a narrative about the framing of Russian history. "As such," the museum, and Russian Ark itself, may be seen as an empty frame of Russian history or a narrative about the mechanisms of framing history.(For an excellent analysis of the problem of framing in cinema, see "The Frame of the Frame" in Screen/Play. Derrida and Film Theory by Peter Brunette and David Wills.)
In another scene, Custine enters the Gallery's Little Italian Skylight Pavilion in present-day St. Petersburg, and gets into an exchange with two retired St. Petersburgians with whom he is caught in discussing Tintoreto's The Birth of St. John the Baptist. The encounter underscores the anachronistic chronotopography, whereby Custine does not understand the mores of contemporary St. Petersburg, and wonders about the poor style of the contemporary fashion.
The third explicit intrusion into the present day conflates characters from three different epochs in the history of the museum. In one of the museum halls we see Iosif Orbeli, the director of Hermitage from 1934-1951, Boris Piotrovsky, the director of Ermitazh from 1964-1990, and Mikhail Borisovich Pyotrovski, his son, the current director of the museum (since 1992).
The characters of Orbeli and Boris Pyotrovski (both deceased) are of course represented by actors, and Mikhail Pyotrovski appears as himself. The three are caught in a conversation about the ways to restore the throne eaten by worms (a not so subtle comment on the Revolution), and about whether the internal walls of the Ermitage may still be saturated by the Soviet-era secret police (KGB) listening devices hidden in numerous tapestries and therefore impossible to detect.("The seventeenth-century Flemish tapestries on its walls provided ideal cover for listening devices" (Norman, 314). Thus, within the movie, there is also an attention to the technological archivization of the political-the listening devices discussed by Orbeli and the two Pyotrovski's-and a subtle competition between the aesthetic (filmic) and political archivization. In addition, the whole movie is set as a sequence of spying: Custine on Russia, being followed by the gaze of the camera, and by a personage described in the cast list as a "spy." The episode in which the secret recording devices are discussed, may stand emblematically for the entirety of the movie which is about total, uninterrupted recording of the ways Russian culture and history recorded and archived themselves.)
(Today they still may be there but are not functional, if we are to believe the statement Mikhail Borisovich gave to the biographer of Ermitazh, Geraldine Norman).(The succession of the father and son as the directors of the major Russian cultural institution during the Soviet period is a unique and quite amazing occurrence. The impact left by Pyotrovski father and son (and it is still an unfolding epoch with Pyotrovski junior still serving as the curator) has seen some of the most energetic activity in the international impact of the Ermitazh tied to Russia's opening to the West in the late and after the Soviet period. The succession of father and son cannot but recall the parallel with two other famous contributors to the history of the Ermitazh, the Rastrellis, Senior and Junior.) The encounter is interrupted by someone calling the current director to duty, and he leaves.
This scene may be paradigmatic of the overall functioning of the movie, which reads the space of the museum as a palimpsest, on which numerous epochs have left their ghostly traces, and co-exist and super-vise each other simultaneously.
This anachronistic shifting into the present day inserts a caesura or a rupture into the movie, that underscores a distance between the viewer and the events within the epochal bracket of the Ermitazh. The temporal rupture makes explicit the distance between the events which belong to the Petrine tradition and the present.
The rupture created by the Soviet period has been subsequently "filled" by the museification of the space and erasure of the political potential of the Ermitazh. It is significant that the two intervals into the present day attempt precisely to "restore" the political dimension of the palace (KGB, the war), while the third meets with the somewhat arrogant refusal of Custine to accept the space of the museum as the gallery.
At the same time, the terror of history which marked the historical entrance of the Winter Palace into history (in addition to the Revolutionary terror beginning as the storming of the palace, numerous curators were executed and shot during Stalin's purges), is conspicuously absent from the film.
It is the negativity of history which cannot be represented, the pure caesura, the temporal rupture inserting a catastrophic interval into the temporal structure of the film and Russian history and it does not give itself to visibility.
The refusal or subtle resistance to accept the Ermitazh as the museum may indicate a resistance on the part of Sokurov to accept the museum as an archive of a certain past. The entire movie may be seen as the vigilant erasure of the entire Soviet period of which in fact nothing is shown, except its absence.
Also, the film enacts the erasure of the dominant cinematic tradition, the "original" filming procedures by means of montage by Sergei Eisenstein, and filming life as it is with numerous cuts attempted by the kino-eye of Dziga Vertov.
Such a temporal constellation sets up an allegory of its own inability to either access the meaning of present-day history, or to erase the insistence of the past history which thrusts itself through the temporal frame of the narrative.
And precisely this allegorical configuration is underscored in a scene where Custine is shown pausing before Rembrandt's Sacrifice of Isaac and after that The Return of the Prodigal Son, two of the most famous items of the Ermitazh collection.
During this reflection, we hear the sound of airplanes, which indicate the siege of Leningrad. After that scene, the voiceover tells Custine that one million people died in the siege, and the protagonists debate the price paid to the historical sacrifice ("Too expensive," says Custine, and then adds, "but then, maybe not").
The rupture filmed by the movie belongs, therefore, not to the formal cuts inflicted by editing, but by this allegorical sacrificial intervention. While the movie is flawlessly and ceaselessly filming "live" events and history, it is interrupted by the allegorical representation which bars immediate access to temporality.
And in reverse, the museum space which is that of reflection and mediation, is constantly interrupted by the intrusion of the historical and political, naked immediacy. The Russian Ark in effect films nothing, or nothing but that chiasmatic intersection between "live history" and its museified archivization.
Second Protagonist: Custine
The incessant vigilance of the cinematic/video gaze in this movie results in infinite numbers of doublings and splitting of the frame of reference. The representational schema wavers between the iteration of history and its singular eventness; between the staged choreography of the director (Sokurov) and the technical mastery by Buttner; and between the parodic iteration embodied in the twin characters of the narrator and the "European," Custine.
The Custine represented in the movie keeps some traces of the "original" one, the author of the Letters from Russia in 1839. Written by an ardent catholic and monarchist, who "went to Russia in search of arguments against representative government, and returned from Russia a partisan of constitutions" (Custine 1951, 23) the travelogues are one of the most critical documents (comparable to Walter Benjamin's Moscow Diary) probably ever written by any foreigner that traveled to Russia.
The book contains some amazing proleptic and prophetic insights into the nature of Russia and its subsequent history. Consider, for example, Custine's reflection on the emptiness of space of St. Petersburg: "The first time there will be a crowd in St.Petersburg, the city will be crushed. In a society organized as this one, a crowd would mean a revolution" (Custine 1951, 112).
Sokurov's Custine does not retain the full energy of this critical charge. Nevertheless, he is grumpy, critical yet mournful or Russia's "repeating the mistakes of the West." In The Russian Ark, Custine oscillates between an esthete who admires art ("Mama, mama, mama: Canova's 'Three Graces'" he exalts at one point), and a participant of the historical events which he comprehends with various degrees of understanding.
His own insights about Russia being a country which is a copy of the West is itself copied, and parodied by the narrator, who constantly repeats Custine's words with in turn various parodic or resigned inflections. The narrator for example admonishes Custine not to enter a room which will open to Leningrad under the siege, or reproaches Custine that he is too harsh in his assessment of Russia ("I have read your Pushkin, the national poet, in French: nothing special").
Custine is shown both to belong to the "live" historical events in which he participates, and to be a museified relic or the work of art. In one scene, he puffs his cheeks and blows air at a clerk who wants in his turn and same manner to blow him away from a room. Simultaneously, and significantly for the representational dynamic of the movie, the scene is split between Custine's active participation in the diegetic events, and at the same time turns him into a sign, or an allegory of the work of art.
The figures with puffed up cheeks spouting air or water cannot but recall numerous depictions of the marine monsters, Medusa heads, Zephirs, Aeols, Poseidons and Tritons that make up the waterworks of St. Petersburg and were built in Petergof, as a copy of the Marli Cascade in Versailles, by Carlo Bartolomeo Rastrelli.
This scene underscores the allegorical structure of the narrative which sets up the represented events as a repetition of figures which cannot fold on themselves in a semantic closure, but push the narrative further in a series of displacements, from room to room, from painting to painting, from historical epoch to historical epoch.
The scene is emblematic of a narrative in which the meaning of the scene is caught in a seriality of displacements, the reading of which never quite accedes to a hermetic semantic completion. And in fact the narrator who is cognizant of historical events does not understand the allegorical impact of this scene and reproaches Custine: "I did not like what you did there, Sir" [Vy mne ne ponravilis' Sudar'].
The movie reduces some of the most proleptic insights made by Custine in his own writings when it limits his understanding of present-day Russia (which his discursive capacity would be fully able to interpret), and at the same time shows that he fully understands the catastrophic abyss to which Russia is headed in the Winter of 1913.
In the last dialogue between the narrator and Custine, Custine refuses to step further and remains enclosed in the epochal bracket of the Petrine tradition and does not want to follow the narrator "further" into history and towards the present-day point of view and "full" historical understanding.
But, at the same time, the moment the narrator loses Custine, he experiences a loss in or of history, and the last scene ends in a monologue confessing the narrator's incapacity to fully comprehend Russian history.
In this coupling of narrative figures, the "full" understanding of Russian history belongs to the dialectics of mutual desirability and scorn, blindness and insight, with which Europe and Russia interact between each other.
The Long Take
The long take allows the time of the event or sequence to expose itself: "the long take's time is the event's time" (Henderson, 1976, 315). In his analysis of Tarkovski's Sacrifice (Sokurov is largely acclaimed as, and is a self professed Tarkovski's student and protégé), dedicated precisely to the question of the long take, Jon Beasley Murray claims that "the 'verity' of the record of the long take is attested by the non-repetition of the sequence itself" (Beasley-Murray, 1997, 45).
Sokurov's Russian Ark appears as the model confirmation of this theoretical insight, and at the same time, by its techno-mnemonic excess-the event's time encapsulates the entire film-The Russian Ark poses innumerable problems and difficulties to the theory of film as the theory of techno-visibility.
If the totality of the filmic time encompasses or frames long takes in the regular movies within which these long takes are grafted, the totality of event in The Russian Ark is the film itself. The featured film itself is framed by the gaze that makes it possible, and becomes a quote or a sequence within the videogram itself.
The film is therefore a take within a take, both an excess of visibility following the events, and the exposure and display of the very capacity of the film to see. The film watches the very gaze of which it is both the vigilant agent and the blind spot. This could explain, once again, the narrative opening into visibility out of the narrator's blindness.
And the film is already produced (and quite literally, the Ermitazh is the producer of the movie), by the very museum that it purports to "see" and film. The film is therefore both the visible trace of its generative history, inasmuch as it is the creator of history which made it possible. Like a Moebius strip, The Russian Ark sets itself up as an infinite splitting of its filmic frame and its frame of reference.(In that respect, The Russian Ark coincides with the paradigmatic shifts in the modes of representations and archivization which affect a contemporary museum, particularly as pertains to the intrusion of the new digital and video technologies. Wolfgang Ernst notes that "The architecturally supported memory of museums is liquefying in an age that permanently transforms objects into images" (Ernst, 2000, 26). In The Russian Ark this theoretical statement may be illustrated by the last scene when the camera shot exits for the first and last time the museum and pans onto the misty, liquefied vapors of the Neva. The gaze at the end of the movie liquefies inasmuch as the digital processing and the video-streaming of the movie will have captured by that moment the museum objects and turned them into a digital image.)
The excessive visibility initiated by the film is enhanced at least on one occasion when we are shown a theatrical spectacle by Catherine the Great given in the Ermitazh. (Catherine was also a writer and staged some of her Baroque plays, Ol'ga for example). Thus the production of visibility and of history is staged within the movie itself (theater comes from the Greek theatron, to see).(This scene in the theater should be compared with Dziga Vertov' filming of the Grand Theater (Bol'shoi teatr) in Moscow in his Man With a Movie Camera. In one brief sequence, the theater is shown split and caves in onto itself, thus symbolically effectuating both the destruction of history and bourgeois culture, its historico-political erasure and obliteration, and the erasure of the very site of sight, the site where seeing itself is being produced (theater, theatron, to see). Another "avoidance" of the Revolution may be the very choice of the filming apparatus. While the movie camera works by means of revolution of the camera crank shaft, the digitalized video camera has virtually no mobile parts.)
This abyssal and excessive visibility is further enhanced by the very place which keeps the memory and culture of seeing, the museum. The movement of the camera follows the gaze of Custine who marvels about the quality and beauty of the pictures that he sees along the way.
But this excessive visibility of both history and its mnemonic archivization rests on a stark blindness and occlusion or omission. While a number of events take place in the post-Petrine period, none of it even remotely mentions a stunning coincidence that the Ermitazh/Winter Palace is not only at the origin of Russian imperial sovereignty and its majestic seat of power, but that the Winter Palace and therefore the Ermitazh is also a paradigmatic site of the Soviet Revolution. It is by storming the Winter Palace that the Soviets took over power and declared the Revolution.
This erasure of history from the field of visibility does not mean that the catastrophe brought upon the building, the institution and the epoch, is not made felt and present in the movie. (It is mentioned in passing by the narrator to Custine that "we also had almost eighty years of the Convention, it was very, very sad" [E to bylo ochen', ochen' pechal'no]).
It is precisely in the absence of this period that the effects of the terror of history may be most strongly felt. (It is in the nature of any historical catastrophe that its most insistent effects may be felt only in the repressed traces of its archivization). Throughout the movie there are screeching and grinding sounds heard interspersed with occasional, very lyrical piano passages by Glinka or Tchaikovsky.
These sounds echo with a catastrophic dissonance. The terror is implied also by the very end, where the rupture is underscored by Custine's teary eyes and somewhat lost and melancholy countenance as he refuses to follow the narrator over the temporal threshold.
And, from the very beginning of the movie, the rupture in and of history is underscored by the narrator's waking up blind out of a catastrophic event. He can only say that a great catastrophe has happened, which he does not remember [sluchilas' beda, chto so mnoiu proizoshlo ne pomniu].
The Soviet period represents an absent cause of The Russian Ark, its catastrophic effects on the building generate the repressed or invisible origin that makes this movie possible.
It is because it is a post-historic and post-catastrophic event, that the explicit aspiration of the movie to be a salvation can be at all meaningful. The Ermitazh is The Russian Ark after the catastrophic flood of Soviet History.
This repressed origin is all the more insistent if we take into account the cinematic tradition that was practically made in St.Petersburg and at the very site of the Winter Palace. Some of the most famous films ever, Pudovkin's End of St.Petersburg, and particularly Eisenstein's October, feature the Winter Palace prominently.
It could be argued that film history would not be possible without Eisenstein's October and the technique of montage that he inaugurated by the "bridge scene" in October (second in importance and fame only to the "staircase scene" in The Battleship Potemkin).(For example, David Bordwell noted that Eisenstein "pushes rhythmic editing to new limits, as when the Cossacks dance presents shots with only one frame long" (Bordwell, 1993, 84).)
And October stages itself precisely as the destruction of both the Winter Palace, which in the movie appears all the more hated as it is the double site and sight of the museum. The motivation of the movie largely rests on the deprecation of the visual opulence of the palace.
The very filming of October was in itself an exercise of destruction of the very visibility of the museum space. In October , Eisenstein uses the Baroque imagery as a symbol of the old and decadent regime and the Winter Palace as the museum. In a very short scene during the taking of the palace, when the Bolsheviks enter the building though the cellars, the camera freezes for a second on the things kept there, depicted as museum objects, with the labels "Egypt" and "Syria" written on them.
The scene therefore represents the Winter Palace as the museum depository. In his Diary of 1939, Victor Shklovsky reminisces how "the service people in the Winter Palace said that the Winter Palace suffered less during the first seizure, than during the second [the filming of the movie]. This is because the Bolsheviks fought with the Provisional Government, and not with furniture" (Shklovsky 1939, 150).
The Soviet revolutionary period as confessed by Shklovsky has seen both the political neutralization of the Winter Palace, and its cultural and artistic obliteration. It is out of such catastrophic blindness that The Russian Ark draws the resources of its visibility.
Another repressed subtext of the long take engaged by the movie, is the whole modernist impact of the kino-eye by Dziga Vertov, of catching life unawares, and his application of the cut as the generative device of his filming. The Man With the Movie Camera consists not only of extremely short takes mounted to create an incredibly rapid sequence of events, rupturing the "regular" flow of the historical time, erasing the past and history (the theater which is broken), but even includes some of the subliminal and invisible takes which go below the threshold of visibility as they are shorter than 24 frames and therefore cannot be perceived except as the visual unconscious of the movie.
The Russian Ark represents the most eloquent example of the difference between what Gilles Deleuze called the movement-image of the pre WWII modernist cinema, and the time-image that succeeded it.
What the film represents is the very moment of keeping of a tradition by means of the "live" gaze of camera. The live gaze sees an entire epoch obliterated and in ruins. It is precisely this tension between the utmost visibility and the ruination of representation that creates the most interesting effects of The Russian Ark.
Far from being an attempt at "restoration" of the imperial past, it is an evidence of the disruptive power of history and irreversibility of its passing. The period and the world which the film "restores" suffers from multiple historico-political and aesthetic erasures. What the long take allows to transpire ("the event's time"-Henderson) is actually the non-visible caesura and rupture between the camera and the "object" of representation.
The incessant, theoretically infinite or at the very least uncut, gaze without a blink, opens itself to a relentless rupturing and ruination of the visible and the represented. It creates a structural dis-orientation of The Russian Ark, and sends the ship to some surprising and unintended destinations (destinations in contrast and contrary to the professed ideological--videological?-intentions of its author, Sokurov).
The Parting Shot
The ruination of the visible has been for a while the foremost creative obsession of Alexander Sokurov. Not only are his movies prominently about dying and death, but they also put on display the very temporality of dying, they make dying, if it were possible, visible. This is prominent in his two more recent movies, The Second Circle, and Mother and Son, both of which are thematically dedicated to the death of a parent. In the first, the son returns home and finds his father dead.
The entire movie is a narrative about the procedures and rituals of the burial and funerary preparations. The specificity of Sokurov's filmmaking in his "treatment" of death is that he does not use the film as a sublation or sublimation of the moment of death which would then result in the perception of immortality on the part of the viewer. As Mikhail Iampol'skii noted in one of his numerous and brilliant analyses of Sokurov's work, the director of The Second Circle "confronts us not with the fictive overcoming of death, but with death as such" (Iampol'skii, 1994, 274, underlined in the original text by M.Ia.).
The effect of such a procedure is that the very contours of the visible world tend to disappear in the films of Sokurov, regardless of whether the focus of the camera remains sharp, or the defining lines of the represented objects become blurred (as is the case in Mother and Son, and at the end of The Russian Ark).
The contours of the world are blurred by the very juxtaposing of live body parts and "dead" objects in an undecideable configuration. The Second Circle, in that regard, blurs the boundaries between the visible and invisible, and therefore the defining co-ordinates of the presence of the visible world, thus producing films with the "zones of blindness" (Iampol'skii, 1994, 275).
Another significant element of Sokurov's filming is his extreme penchant towards melancholic sentiments. Precisely melancholic, and not that of mourning (to recall Freud's famous distinction, whereby mourning allows for the lost object to be displaced and exteriorized by the rituals of mourning or by means of prosthetic displacement like art or film): melancholia is a psychic condition in which the entirety of the cathected but lost object remains lodged in the one who unsuccessfully mourns, and completely fills the psychic apparatus with the emptiness of the loss.
In melancholia the "I" becomes the loss of the other. We could say, following this distinction, that Sokurov's movies fill the represented world with absence and interiorize this absence with obsessive archivization. Thus, the movie does not allow a displacement of the loss onto the filmic apparatus, but becomes a depository, an archive or-a museum-of a loss which cannot or refuses to be lost.
The filmic time is the time which fills the frame with the nothingness of the lost object and the more visibility enters the camera the more loss is generated by the film. Sokurov's film in that regard, takes all, and that may explain the structural and representational predisposition for filming in long takes and in only one long take, like in The Russian Ark.
The similar affective configuration underlies his more recent Mother and Son (1997). The very first shot is some eight minutes long, during which the dying mother and her son do not move and the son barely leaves the frame for these eight minutes and then returns to join the mother on her death bed.
The movie is made with an inordinately small number of shots, filmed through the smudged, lichened lens, and often with a distorted or anamorphic grid. The very gazing becomes liquid, as if representing the very lacrimal solution and tears in which the eye swims. In his essay on Mother and Son, Iampol'skii points out that Sokurov's image "emerges from the ruins, from the chaos of death as the inverse side of life itself, and not its representation.
In Sokurov something similar may be discovered, but in different terms. …The image (representation) appears really life-like, emerging from death as from the ruins" (Iampol'skii, 1994, 140). The very process of Sokurov's filming creates a sense not of being-towards-death, to use the Heideggerian terminology, but something like being-within-death, in the very aporetic opening of dying.
Or maybe a being-with the death of the other. In Mother and Son, the countertemporality of dying and the sensibility that one dies the death of the other is epitomized by the exchange in which the dying mother tells the son: "I pity you, not because you will be left alone in the world, but because you will have to go through where I am now, through my death."
The temporality of the movie is divided therefore in the very motion of the image, as it captures the very difference within and the splitting of life in its mortality. But that mortality is experienced not as the solipsistic enclosure but as the death of the other in me, my death in the other.(B.V.Markov likens Sokurov with Dostoevsky and says that in Sokurov's movies "the face of the angel is already covered by the cob-web of death" (Markov, 2001, 79). And K.S. Pigrov noted that in Sokurov's films the "Essence of the world develops in death. Sokurov is most interested not in death itself, as the passing of being to non-being, but the secret 'life of the non-living,' the very being of non-being" (Pigrov, 2001, 87).)
It is precisely that ruination of life, its par-taking and sharing of death that underlies the representational drive of Sokurov's filming. And that is why the ruin, as in Mother and Son (where their home is depicted as already invaded by the elements and ruination just like the home of the dead father in The Second Circle which leaks rain, etc.) plays such an important, emblematic place in Sokurov's films.
The ruin is most prominently used as the theme of his Robert. A Fortunate Life, a short film he made in 1996. The choice of Robert is significant since he is THE painter who has dedicated his career to painting ruins and whose pictures-we are never far from The Russian Ark-feature very prominently in the Ermitazh collection.
As a matter of fact it is Hubert Robert who is most represented in the Ermitage and competes only with Rembrandt for the number of paintings and importance of his works for the collection. And, importantly for the analysis, Hubert Robert is represented with a large number of paintings depicting ruins: Ancient Ruins as a Public Bath, Landscape With Ruins, Terrace Ruins in a Park, and, not without importance for a movie that takes place in a museum called the Hermitage, At the Hermit's.(For the Ermitazh collections see, among other, Paintings in the Ermitage by Colin Eisler, introduced by B.B.Piotrovsky and V.A.Suslov.)
In Hubert's paintings, as noted by Didier Maleuvre, the ruination of the gaze, the very dissolving of the visible, creates a space where art exists "after the cataclysm, after the end of history and art" (Maleuvre, 2000, 86). And it is Hubert Robert who made visible what, in my analysis, I claim for Sokurov to do for the Ermitazh.
In his Imaginary View of the Grande Galerie of the Louvre in Ruins, Hubert Robert paints the museum as the space that is left after the catastrophe of history, as that what remains. But what remains remains as a ruin of the remains, and these remains, when exhibited in the museum, remind us that museums are indeed the archives and arks in which the taxonomic display of art creates a ruinous space or is a product of the ruin already having taken place. "Ultimately, the ruin in Imaginary View of the Grand Galerie of the Louvre in Ruins is the painting itself; the shock experience of historiographic alienation is the esthetic appearance of art" (Maleuvre 2000, 87).
It is not only that Robert paints ruins: it is the very ruination of art as it appears in history that attains visibility in his paintings.
Like Mother and Son and Robert. A Fortunate Life, The Russian Ark allows precisely for such visibility to be put on display. The one long take of the museum films the very ruination of culture. The total cultural archive of Russia is seen here as it were for the first and the last time, simultaneously.
For the first time: in all its "life," at the time and place of its origin, captured by the "live" gaze of the video camera. The camera captures the very life of the culture, an entire epoch at the source and the origin of its historical and political appearance. And, simultaneously, The Russian Ark films the very ruin of that history, history as ruin, and the archival opulence of the lost world.
The action in the film "takes place" as it were for the first and for the last time, at once. Both as a singular, inimitable event, a happening without a model, precedent or repetition, and as a monument, a historicized and temporalized passage between the past and the future, the line of flight of a historical appearance, a repetition, an iterable mark, an archive, an ark and a mark.
Every camera shot by Sokurov is therefore always already a parting shot. The Russian Ark operates both before the Soviet history took place, and at its end, aftermath, and catastrophic ruin. It is situated both before, and after history will have taken place.
The Russian Ark is a unique film which puts on display something that can be generalized as the very mechanics of history: it takes place uniquely, for the first time, and it takes place as an originary doubling. It reminds us that all history happens as a singular iteration, as a repetition, but only once.(Gilles Deleuze defines this di-visibility of time-image engendered by film, as the "direct presentation, its constitutive dividing in two into a present which is passing and a past which is preserved, the strict contemporaneity of the present with the past that it will be, of the past with the present that it has been…. constantly recommencing its dividing in two without completing it" (Deleuze, 274).)
The Russian Ark also can be said to actualize and make use of, and erase an entire epoch which is lodged within it as a source of melancholic loss. The repressed other of the represented history, its ruinous subtext, Soviet Russia, haunts the movie like a ghost, and lurks in the intertextual interstices of The Russian Ark.
The movie operates as a colossal attempt to do the impossible: to erase the historical period that has in turn obliterated the tradition represented in the film. Soviet art insistently pushes through in the repressed references to Eisenstein, Malevich or Vertov. And the total museification of life as death cannot but recall the long take with which Vertov bid farewell to Lenin in the Three Songs of Lenin, or the very radicalization of the museum space achieved by Shchusev's mausoleum of Vladimir Iliich Lenin.
The film stages the hermeneutics of the historical production of the Hermitage and St. Petersburg (this year celebrating its 300th anniversary). St. Petersburg was built as the phantasm of a secluded, hermetic sovereignty. The film underscores that phantasm by depicting Russia in the moments of being besieged by foreign troops, German and Persian.
We should be reminded that St. Petersburg was built precisely as "the window on to Europe," an opening within the body of Russia by means of which Russia would at the same time plug the hole through which the West, the other, continued to seep into her body.
At the same time the city, by solidifying the liquid soil of the Empire, made on swamp and unsanitary bogs, was meant equally to ward off the muddy waters, the boloto and Russia itself from seeping into it. But the seclusion of the city and the museum is not hermetically sealed.
It therefore also programmed itself from the very beginning as an archive of its own decomposition. Just like in Hubert Robert's painting At the Hermit's, which used to hang in Catherine the Great's bedroom (therefore giving by means of a synecdoche the name, the Hermitage, to the whole building), in which the solitude of the hermit is framed by the ruin, the absolute separation and hermitage brings with itself its own ruination. In that sense, Sokurov's film is an ark that leaks history.(The catastrophic flood that immersed St. Petersburg is the theme of the most famous 19th-Century poem about this city, "The Bronze Horseman" by Alexander Pushkin. Since Pushkin explicitly makes an appearance in the movie such an association is necessary and dominant. And the equestrian figure of Peter the Great is the central trope of Russian and also in some ways of Soviet modernism as well.)
The Liquid Gaze
The last scene of The Russian Ark opens on the misty Neva, and what is given to be seen is liquefied, blurred and misty. It is as if the very emulsion of the film, in the moment of melting, gave itself to visibility.
The Russian Ark also bids farewell to filming with the film stock as such. The steadicam, the steady video stream used to make this film abandons the filmic support and works by means of the liquefaction of the gaze. It is made possible by the digital and electromagnetic, which is this cinema support and the substrate of the future.
This mode of filmic production marks therefore an end of history for an entire cinematic epoch. The voiceover is mournful as it ponders the future destination of the sailing. It concludes the movie with the division of temporality with which it started.
The very countertemporal difference of the loss, one before the other, makes itself visible: Russian history before the Soviet Revolution, Soviet Revolution before Sokurov's filming, Russia before Europe, film before video, museum after history, and all after each other: displayed as the memory and the archive of this partition and this parting.
As the track shot follows the crowd descending the Jordan Stairwell (thus additionally making a connection between The Russian Ark and the Ark of the Covenant), we overhear an exchange between a governor and his wife: "When we get back to Kursk, we have to throw the same kind of ball in the spring." The camera then pans onto the misty waters of the Neva and the Baltic Sea, and the association is made with the film's title to suggest that the Hermitage is a ship or a vessel.
But it is a ship which is not hermetically sealed, to continue the association with the name of the museum in its Western version, the Hermitage, and, further, with the worst Russian submarine disaster ever: the Kursk. (The discreet but insistent sounds of the grinding metal remind one throughout the movie of the noises a ship or a submarine would make under distress, sinking.
And in one of the previous scenes two modern-day sailors in military uniforms confront and get into an argument with Custine). The Russian Ark is a ship that leaks and fills itself with the memory of its own loss, which is not least of all the loss of Russia's supreme, hermetic, "iron curtain," national or Messianic sovereignty.
The Russian Ark constitutes a leak of the lack that it tries to contain. And the film turns the very loss into a source of the post-historic melancholic sovereignty, the sovereignty of melancholia.(Walter Benjamin, in his Theses on the Philosophy of History (the epigraph for this essay comes from this text), makes an analogy between such empathetic attempts to "revitalize" history, to which Sokurov's Russian Ark eminently belongs, and melancholia: "To historians who wish to relive an era, Fustel de Coulanges recommends that they blot out everything they know about the later course of history. There is no better way of characterizing the method with which historical materialism has broken. It is a process of empathy whose origin is the indolence of the heart, acedia, which despairs of grasping and holding the genuine historical image as it flares up briefly. Among medieval theologians it was regarded as the root cause of sadness. Flaubert, who was familiar with it, wrote: 'Peu gens devineront combien il a fallu etre triste pour ressusciter Carthage.'* *("Few will be able to guess how sad one had to be in order to resuscitate Carthage)" (Benjamin, 1968, 256).)
The ark like a gaze floats in the uncharted black waters of post-historicity. The film offers the possibility of a definition: post-modernism is modernism that leaks history, and, moreover, that post-modernism is a narrative that tells a story that modernism has always already leaked history, against its hermetic and eremitic enclosure.
What we see at the end of the movie, with the liquid contours opening to the see, is the gaze of history that still remains to come, ahead of us to mourn or sail, but, as it were, a history already survived and after its passing, a history as the passing of a survival. As they float, the ark and the arkive are filling with tears.(I wish to express my gratitude to Ora Gelley, Michael du Plessis, Susan Jarrett, Deborah Levitt, Bliss Felicidad Lim, Maja Manojlovic, Mary Reilly, Bryan Reynolds, Irina Sandomirskaia and Brigitte Weltman-Aron for their helpful suggestions and for sharing with me their views on this film.)
See also the article Roundtable on Alexander Sokurov's film "Russian Ark".
In memory of Marina Kanevskaya, 1956-2002
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------------------------. Russian Ark. Film: 2002, 99 min., 35 mm, color, Dolby Digital Video: 2002, 95 min., HD, 16:9, Dolby Surround. The State Hermitage Museum, Hermitage Bridge Studio, Egoli Tossell Film AG production, Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, Fora–Film M, Celluloid Dreams.
------------------------. “Sailing Russian Ark to the New World”http://www.landmarktheatres.com/Stories/ark_frame.html
------------------------, Deryabin, A. “Refusal to take part in the ceremony for the awarding of prizes by the EFA in December, 2002.” http://www.sokurov.spb.ru/island_en/mnp.html
Weber, Samuel. Mass Mediauras. Form. Technics. Media. Edited by Alan Cholodenko. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.