An Ark for a Pair of Media: Sokurov’s Russian Ark

Sokurov’s Ark is a 21st century vessel, floating on the old fluids of analogous pictures in and of the space of the Hermitage of St. Petersburg – oil, ink and film emulsion.

The digital image of these pictures lives in this Ark, produced by a “never blinking” (Kujundzic) video eye, and a noise reduced stereophonic ear: a dolby digital camera. But: We do not see the digital image itself, we see its copy, in a 35 mm film projection.

The Ark is a versatile vessel. It contains representations and their media, all grouped in biblical pairs: the blind narrator – Marquis de Custine, the Winter palace – the Hermitage museum, St. Petersburg – Moscow, Russia (Sokurov) – Europe/Germany (Buettner).

One of the quite specific pairs in Sokurov ‘s Ark is the digital camera and the analogous film projector (the endless stream of video and the film montage chopping up reality). This pair makes the digital image inside/before the Russian Ark visible for large audiences. Thus the Ark is a configuration of old and new media of vision.

Outside of the Ark is the blind commentator (a mere voice; it belongs to Sokurov) who seems to be at the origin of the pictures we see. Noah’s ark was made to save the creatures living on the earth. Save them from drowning. The Russian Ark drowns us in pictures of the past. In pictures of images of pictures.

Why did Sokurov’s transfer digital images made by a video camera on 35-mm film? Why this transfer of images, produced by a new medium, onto an old medium? Is it just film distribution and film theaters lagging behind due to the fact that they are not equipped for the screening of digital videos? The insufficient quality of digital projection? The FILM Festival in Cannes?

Sokurov is n ot the only director who works with this transfer from digital to analogue, but his Russian Ark exposes the medially split status of this digital-video-film. The fact that Russian Ark was made by a (digital) video camera is obvious because of the quality of resolution and the technical problem which such a long shot would pose to a 35mm-film camera (Sokurov could have chosen a smaller conventional camera, but he did not).

It is essential to comprehend this double nature of Sokurov’s dv-film as a technological paradox, pointing to paradoxes inherent to Russian Ark. Kujundzic’s fine essay offers multiple answers to the question why Sokurov chose the digital camera for his project.

I would like to concentrate on one specific aspect of the question of why Sokurov could just NOT use a regular film camera for his jubilee piece on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg?

Let us turn to the most obvious meaning of Russian Ark, the Hermitage, which is a quintessential image of the former Russian Capital. 20th century film did not hold St. Petersburg in favour. Especially pre-war cinema preferred southern locations (maybe due to the weather conditions which are much better in the Ukraine than in foggy St. Petersburg whichmany months of the year has poor natural lighting for outdoor scenes).

I cannot think of one important prewar film which used the architecture of this city in an adequate way; many of the films which play in Leningrad were shot in (Moscow!) studios (like M. Romms film about Lenin in the revolution of 1917).

Aesthetically and ideologically there seemed to be no way of showing the atmospherical beauties of the city on the Neva; only after the war film directors tried to capture the special Leningrad sights and their feeling, among them the fabulous Mark Donskoy in Selskaya uchitelnitsa, (1947), H. Rappoport and V. Ejsymont who dis covered the Petersburg quays as a grandiose background for the biography of the Russian inventor of the radio, Aleksandr Popov (1949), an otherwise quite drab and ostentatious patriotic film, produced by LENFILM, the Leningrad studio.

The main reason why Eisenstein in his film October (1927) commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution opted for the Winter Palace in Petrograd was that he had to stage the Revolution on location (…and that he liked to play around with some of the objects of the museum in the palace – these infantile montage games with buddhas and other figures came to be known as intellectual montage which was banned only a few years later on).

The Hermitage in his film became a symbol for tsarist decadence and weakness. And: Eisenstein’s October is not only a film about the Revolution, but mainly about staging a revolution for a film in a museum and about the destructive powers of montage.

Kujundzic points out that Sokurov ‘s Russian Ark “enacts the erasure of the dominant cinematic tradition ‘original’ filming procedures by means of montage by Sergei Eisenstein” (Kujundzic).

This happens primarily by totally avoiding not only fast avantgarde montage, but every kind of montage. By mastering this challenge with dv technology, Sokurov also gives us a different image of the Hermitage and the former Capital (as a continuation of his former elegies on Petersburg / Leningrad).

He renounces the famous Eisensteinian stairway scenes (the ridiculous Kerenski on the huge flight of steps in the Winter Palace or the pathos ridden representation of dying people on the Odessa stairs in Battleship Potemkin) by starting his dv-film with an intimate scene in a narrow and dark staircase which emanates warmth and privateness.

By turning against the Eisensteinian tradition one-shot-per-film-Sokurov situates St. Petersburg right in the future, a digital future in a chimerical museum with a blind man as a guide and a blind visitor, a future of seeing fingers which read the world without the help of the rotten eyes of the 20th century.

A future without sight in a strong Russia which does not “exhaust” itself anymore by gazing at the West which acording to Spielberg in the future will identify individuals not by finger prints, but by eye-scanning (Minority Report).

The extremely long shot averts the attention from vision and stimulates us to feel other senses (the Marquis loves the smell of the oil paintings!), by showing different textures, by adding the murmuring off voice.

This long shot seems to invite the viewer-visitor to stay in constant touch with (museified) reality, run his or her fingers along fabrics, wood, semiprecious stones, china and marble. Sokurov makes the digital experience a tactile one. It is as if the steadicam closely connected with Büttner’s body by a special vest and a backpack construction made it possible to record / see / feel reality with the whole body. Like the blind visitor who strokes the sculptures and knows the paintings by Van Dyck by heart and not by sight.

The St. Petersburg myth – be it positive or negative – shaped the image of this city (“built on swamps”) as a chimerical one etc. Although St. Petersburg might have an uncanny, unreal appearance, it nontheless is a conglomeration of real buildings with real people living in it. It is a perfect reversal, a mirror of the digital.

Digital images are realistic (real looking) pictures, but not necessarily of real, existing objects. Working with digitally recorded images on a computer (going as far as creating digital worlds out of billions of pixels) is a profoundly different way of producing images – especially if compared to pictures made by analogue movie cameras which are produced by exposing film stock to light and receiving analogue pictures from reality.

Even if this reality seems to be unreal… The digitalization of the St. Petersburg Hermitage with a camera is an accurate way of representing St. Petersburg. Or, one could put it in another way: the technological bastardy of Russian Ark (doubled by the scandal around a German behind the digital camera and a Russian film director) is reduplicated most aptly by choosing not only St. Petersburg, but a St. Petersburg institution which is a model showcase of Western Art and Western Culture.

And the film shows us a p(a)lace which once was designed mainly for royal residence and is now a museum (a show case of former times) – “the double site and sight of the museum” (Kujundzic). Are the tables, chairs and chaiselongues real furniture or are they just showing, evocating (long gone) ways of sitting, dining and lying down?

The Hermitage (like many palaces transformed into museums) is a place where one is encouraged to explore the difference between showing and being. The Ark is Russian because Russia is a place where paradoxes prosper. Russia and namely St. Petersburg are the place to show us our (digital) future, firmly embedded in endles s acts of copying, simulation, situations of ontological uncertainty.

The blurring of differences between now and then, of East and West, of reality and museum, is one of the main aims of Russian Ark. Technologically it is being achieved by turning digital images in analogous pictures. In Sokurov’s digital-video-film we see pictures showing the Hermitage in the German siege of Leningrad. Is Sokurov’s Ark about saving living people or is the Ark carrying the corpses of undead media of the last 300 years?

One of Kujundzic’s keen remarks on the specific Petersburg museum tradition brings me back to the media fluids/fluid media which transport post-media configurations: “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 f ormaldehyde, which keeps the formal features of organic life self-same and seemingly without any representational filter.”

The formaldehyde smell of “totally preserved” dead bodies as perfect representations of themselves reminded me of Scorsese’s lament about the dying of acetate film stock which is accompanied by an “unpleasant acidic smell” which made the film “unprojectable” because it reached “unbearable levels”.

And his fear that many films (incuding his own) might die of the “vinegar syndrome”, poisoned by acids which are part of their media identity. Technically Sokurov’s Russian Ark presents us with an absurd process of “formaldehyding” the newborn medium: hiding digital images in analogous projections. “I open my eyes and I see nothing.” – before the film starts we hear these words, spoken by Sokurov. Looking at a black screen.

How do media die? By means of other media. Who mourns them? The other media themselves. This newest work of Sokurov – like many others before – is about death. This time about (un)dead media being repeated, echoed by a blind, vampirizing vision: Isn’t the neverblinking eye the eye of the dead?

See also the article Roundtable on Alexander Sokurov’s film “Russian Ark”.

Natascha Drubek-Meyer is the Cineview Editor for ARTMargins and works and publishes in the fields of Film and Slavic Studies. A 2006-2008 Marie-Curie-Fellow at the Film School of Prague, Drubek-Meyer is at work on the project “Hypertextual Film Presentation, Designing Digital Editions for the European Cinematographic Heritage”.

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