Roundtable on Alexander Sokurov’s film “Russian Ark”

The echo on our publication of Dragan Kujundzic’s essay on Alexander Sokurov’s film Russian Ark (Russkij kovcheg) has been very lively. It is followed this week by another text or echo on the film by Raoul Eshelman. In addition, we have asked well-known critics and film historians for their responses to Sokurov’s film. These responses will be published over the next few weeks. Please find the first of them below. The questions we asked of all discussion participants were the following: “What will the moving image of St. Petersburg look like in the 21st century?” and “What comes after analogous cinematography and how does the digital turn change film and post-film movies?”


Marquis de Custine

Sokurov’s much debated film Russian Ark is a film of many paradoxes. Its premiers travel from West to East in America, Europe, and Russia, and contrary to the histories of Russia it (re)presents, has led to many confusions and irritations.

Picture theory as “sculpted” through the history of pictures, bodily perceptions and intercultural questions seem to be an entry-point for understanding and analyzing the film. A tangible simultaneousness of historical epochs, visual techniques and thoughts about preserving a national film-culture (in the context of the “global” or European threat) comprise some of the complexity of the film. Still, these issues are not always satisfying.

Some are bored and/or irritated by the setting of the film. These viewers often focus on whether Sokurov has betrayed his ideals by advertising the Hermitage and actual restorative tendencies. They also question his support of Putin-or at least the repetition of the cliché of degeneration since the beginning of 20th century history.

Others feel disturbed by the involvement of the French guide and his obvious behavioural displacement in most of the scenes. This guide represents the “typical gaze” of the West on Russia in a far too passive manner.

A great deal of these reactions (and advertisements) are concerned with the technical innovation of the HDCAM digital technique-which made the screening in one shot possible. There was also the controversy over Sokurov’s refusal to take part in the official EFA Award Ceremony. Several rumours in Germany spoke of Sokurov’s jealousy of the operator Tilman Büttner, who was also supposed to receive a prize.

In fact, Sokurov and Derjabin protested against a typical misunderstanding in the honors for technical innovation: As new technologies usually lead to a greater invisibility of art (a “realistic” threat of the cult of new technologies), their artistic usage is “guaranteed” by the director and the whole production process, and never in terms of the operator’s work alone.

The argument in favour of aesthetic totality and the struggle for authorship is a common issue in Russian cinema. The techno-scientific paradigm is also a part of Russian culture and identity. Thus his point against the German technological contribution also recounts the old history of Germans and their fetishization of technology.

Thus the ideas explored in the film extend into the debates surrounding the movie itself. Mentioning the financial impact of the film on the Russian Culture Ministry highlights the political prejudices against Sokurov and points to the “deeper” background of this and next year’s Russian-German cultural meetings.

These “misunderstandings” on an international level (in European co-productions for example), and the position of an ambitious director like Sokurov, seem to add to the different layers of history, art and culture in the director’s uncut movie.

(Nele Sasz, Berlin)

Sokurov is a specialist in analyzing totalitarian ideologies-he proposed visual interpretations of Hitler (Molokh, 1999) and Lenin (Taurus, 2000). These films are the first half of a tetralogy on dictators of the 20th century. (Rumour has it that his next project will deal with Mao Tse Dong).

Russian Ark does not fit at all into this series. This breathtaking movie seems not to analyze but to produce ideology. It is a dream phantasy with a narrator who owns Sokurov’s voice and the eye of the camera.

This eye (which is in Nabokov’s homophony also an I) is led by Marquis de Custine through the space of Russian imperial history. The Hermitage is a chosen place where power and art meet congenially. The title metaphor of the “Ark” suggests that Russian culture survived the Soviet Deluge in the imperial refugium of the Winter Palais.

Who is Custine in this film? Sokurov designs him as a vampire. The iconographic allusions are clear enough-Custine wears a black suit and spreads his long fingers like Murnau’s Nosferatu.

Custine is dead and so is his artistic taste: He prefers natures mortes painted by Flemish masters and he has no sense of the beauties of Pushkin’s verse. In one word Sokurov’s Marquis de Custine is the ugly incarnation of Western arrogance and contempt for Russian culture.

A psychoanalytic approach may clarify the ambivalent relation between the dreaming narrator and Custine. Custine represents a demonic force within the narrator’s own soul. He can be interpreted as the ever threatening fear of the Russian artist not to be able to meet Western standards of art.

This reading is most evident in a scene where de Custine shows his own book La Russie en 1839 to the narrator and tells him that rather than himself, the narrator is the author of the book.

The whole movie, then, can be seen as a fight against the complex of inferiority of the Russian artist. Sokurov performs a kind of exorcism: The anaemic French diplomat who sucks the blood from the vital body of Russia must be overcome.

At the end, the Western vampire is defeated not with a wooden peg in his chest, but by the sheer force of Russian imperial culture. During the triumphal ball scene (the orchestra plays Glinka), Custine decides to stay within the space of Russian imperial art; he remains inside the Ark. The narrator then leaves the Hermitage and continues his artistic creation after the catastrophe.

A dominant role in this last scene is attributed to Valery Gergiev, the acclaimed director of the Mariinsky theatre in St. Petersburg. The camera focuses various times on this vital and charismatic man who directs not only his orchestra but the fate of Russia. Sokurov leaves no doubt that Gergiev is the new Noah who enacts Russian culture anew in the 21th century.

Sokurov’s Russian Ark deploys completely different artistic means than Nikita Mikhalkov’s Barber of Siberia (1998). But in their ideological substratum both movies are comparable: They invert the traditional cliché of the irrational Russian and redirect this reproach to Western Europe.

The clue to both films lies in the figures of two Western madmen: The English Inventor (Richard Harris) in Mikhalkov and the morbid Marquis in Sokurov attack the innermost center of Russian culture: The Siberian woods and the splendid Imperium.

Russian Ark may be understood as a kind of visual manifesto. The Hermitage is a kind of nutshell of Russian culture which will unfold in a splendid future. Using the metaphoric religious language of the film, this point can be put as follows: There is only one Holy Russia, and Valery Gergiev is its prophet.

(Ulrich Schmid, Frankfurt/M.)

Anyone who knows Sokurov’s films-his obsession with mists, dissolves and fadeouts, their hypnotic thrills, his delving into a mystery-can easily understand Sokurov’s desire to make a film “in one breath”.

In one of his latest interviews Sokurov confessed that his idea of making a film without a single cut was already almost fourteen years old.

Then Sokurov wanted to make a film about the Tower of Babylon, where – as he mentioned – all nations and languages form one spiritual movement.

Sokurov is interested indeed in this kind of inner gesture, in the movement of big masses encircled by an architectonic metaphor (Tower). As we see here, everything was already prepared for the concept of Russian Ark. The idea lacked only its technical implementation.

With the Babylon metaphor Sokurov is making – deliberately or not – a decisive mistake. The point is, that the Babylon legend is about something completely different: it is about a mixture of languages and peoples, about so-called “Babel,” about the tragedy of miscommunication, separation, and disunion. It does not say anything about human unity in one spiritual movement.

This kind of slight remythologization of an archetypical plot seems to be inherent for the Sokurov’s work. He has never sought for any kind of historical truth or authenticity. It is simply not his case. In this sense the Russian Ark project has become for Sokurov a temptation for more than technical reasons.

The long cut is a very mild and intelligent challenge of the cinema as such. In his essay, Kujundzic scrutinized Sokurov’s “one-shot-per-film” in its relation to montage of Eisenstein.

He asserts that Russian Ark “enacts the erasure of the dominant cinematic tradition ‘original’ filming procedures by means of montage by Sergei Eisenstein.” Natascha Drubek-Meyer wittily deepened this opposition, comparing the “destructive montage” of the Winter Palace in Eisenstein’s October to desecrate Sokurov’s Hermitage in which form two completely different images of Saint Petersburg.

Cinema is indeed based on montage; either it is a constructive device or a technical necessity to connect pieces. With his new film Sokurov pretends to be absolutely unique. His film is a very ambitious attempt to create a new image of a Russian film director, to construct a new approach to film.

Actually, he joins another tradition: the long shots of Dovzhenko, Shukshin (landscapes of Kalina Krasnaja) and Tarkovsky (e.g. the eight final minutes of Sacrifice). This tradition, in each case differently, arouses “slavianophil”-discourses with their notorious concept of a peculiar way of Russia. For those three directors this was of secondary importance or an “additional” one.

For Sokurov it turns into the main topic and the main device. In western film theory, from the other side, there is a big tradition of a negative attitude towards montage: Anre Basen, once analyzing the evolution of the montage in neorealism, considered cut as a director’s arbitrariness or even despotism, which distorts the reality.

A film, which would consciously avoid montage (ideally it should be without cut at all), was, according to Basen, a breakthrough towards “the truth of life.” In this sense Sokurov did create a new Russian “truth.”

“The non-blinking eye” (Kujundzic) of the camera objectivizes the look of the artist and makes it analogous to the look of God the Creator.

“And he saw: that it was good.”

In Russian Ark Sokurov, the voice, and Marquise de Custine, the embodiment of Russian consiousness and a foreigner respectively, are making their way along the corridors and halls of the Hermitage.

Biblical metaphor here attempts to create a model of Russia, a quintessence of “russianness,” a sort of “truthful history” both for abroad and for local need. What is there inside the Russian Ark?

Almost the only thing, which is unfolded in front of us, is the high society of elitist imperial Russia. Fine ladies are coming to a ball, escorted by officers; despot Peter the Great is beating his grandee, obviously for better goals; proud Catherine the Great is watching her own piece in the theatre; tsar Nikolai II – such a good family man! – is sitting at the dinner-table with his wife and his pretty daughters.

Hermitage is presented as a continuous image of Russian culture, as a place of action. We see the best achievements of Western arts, which nurtured Russian people. We see extraordinary well-dressed, and sometimes very beautiful people, as the extras of Russian history.

We see also some of our contemporaries, who seem to be the complete and perfect realization of both cultures, like the famous and charismatic conductor Valerij Gergiev or the less famous and aging, ballet-dancer Alla Osipenko.

The Hermitage as an object in combination with the aesthetics of one cut as a device inevitably creates a field of unbearable intellectual tension. This tension turns out to be deceptive and delusive.

The beauty of this film comes into contradiction with its ideological banalities. Images of tsars and tsarinas are reduced to one-sided stereotypes. We are witnesses of an unprecedented, refined unrolling of a banal cartoon under hypnosis.

This permanent conflict between the bewitching beauty of visual images (and their bewitching continuity and duration) and their essential (substantial) banality and triviality does not find its solution in the film.

The work with historical issues in this film is irresponsible to a simply astonishing extent. Moreover, the film contains some moments of unforgivable ethics or even spiritual vulgarity. Custine suddenly finds himself in the cold hall with coffins and empty frames.

This hall is a sort of allegory or maybe even a metaphor for World War II, the war against Germany. Custine asks some questions and gets some answers, commenting on them refinely while rubbing his small delicate hands: “Oh, millions of people died of starvation, oh, don’t you say, it’s impossible!”

There is only one explanation for the variety of tasteless cases, or blunders, made in this film. The poetics of Russian Ark are very inarticulate and vague. Shifts between the authenticity of historical costume, metaphorical language, and multiple allegories come out with indistinct messages and sometimes with banalities and platitudes.

The ball as a crucial point of the film plays a double role: it is a metaphor and a real historic event, which took place in 1913 and was dedicated to the 300th anniversary of the Romanov’s house.

The extended scene of the ball dances, Gergiev (not really free from Mefistophelus’ features) is conducting: beautifully, truthfully, stylishly. And that is our Russia! Although it is not a Satan’s ball, it does not fit in any case with Noah’s Ark.

The film ends with a scene, in which all participants – thousands of actors – are descending the staircase. Here we see Natalya Goncharova for a moment; she is called by Dantes, who is still somewhere further above. Alexander Pushkin, a slim, nice young man in uniform, is very nervous. It is simply touching! And – oh, this beautiful world of cinema – Pushkin turns out to be exactly that tall as his young wife. Every species by two?

All these people are descending the staircase, descending in a non-existence, as the whole Russian empire did. The staircase in Potemkin and the staircase in Russian Ark compose two different ideological poles.

At the same time both of those staircases are presented as a historical “victim,” although according to the following events out of the film or in reality these staircases should have shot each other.

The world in the Russian Ark is presented as innocent, but God knows why, for it sinks in the misty morning of a revolutionary tomorrow. The flood was punishment for sins. Was this Russian world therefore “innocently killed”? Did it eventually have any sins? And did the Russian tragedies really start in 1905, 1914, or 1917?

The informational perturbations of the perestroyka time with its overwhelming historical revelations and attempts to understand the variety of Russian tragedies and their reasons caused an unprecedented fatigue of people and finally turned into to a phenomenon of collective sclerosis.

This sclerotic state of being is fostered by ideological institutionsin order to construct a new image of the Russian past and present in the minds of the Russian people. Anyhow, nobody really remembers anything or in the present indefinite “nobody wants to know anything.” One is just consuming ready-made products.

The level of historical truth of Russian Ark is not any different from the joke about the queen who has been told that her people did not have any bread to eat. She simply replied: “Then they have to eat pastry.”

It is very interesting, what is not shown in the film. Simply, one must ask, where are all those who could not attend the ball? All those, who are outside in the frost? They are not destined to be saved by Sokurov’s Ark, are they? It is simply not appropriate to talk about them in modern and successful Russia.

Who is interested in those who built this unique city? Who cares how many lives have been sacrificed to build Saint Petersburg? Who cares how many thousands of Russian peasants cemented the ground of the city with their own bones? We knew all this before.

Was it then just communist propaganda? Who remembers, what kind of horrible orders this “good family man” Nikolai the II gave? So did this history have any sins? Is there a link between times? Who has saved whom? And finally, if Russian Ark is Russian Ark, who is Sokurov – the Lord God or the creator of a new ideology?

Sokurov has never been a lackey filmmaker. Quite the opposite. What has happened to him now? Sokurov could not miss the glorious anniversary of Saint Petersburg. The Russian government could not miss it either, reviving all the elements of Soviet anniversaries with their traditional “potemkin villages.” The intimate task of Sokurov’s film is obvious: to show something which was saving Russia and which is again saving it now.

Fatefully, the spiritual wandering of the honest and absolutely independent artist holds a “message” that coincides with crucial tasks of the leading Russian ideologists. In brief, Sokurov’s creative endeavor has rhymed with a “social order.” It even serves the goals of this social order. Is this a casual circumstance or a terrifying symptom of a new brave Russian reality?

Bad memory was always a very good help and a stable basis for future brainwashing, since tired people are the best material for manipulations of any kind. Visual arts and visual mass media have incomparably bigger power in comparison to schoolbooks or print media in creation of a patch-work “Russia in pictures.”

The humanistic inclination of Russian art is a legendary past that has almost vanished. Instead of humanism, something new has already appeared. The new image of Russia has a slight zest of an export good, a taste of reverse translation. Russian Ark is a clear testimony of this tendency.

This film presents Russian history as the history of the Russian dynasty enriched by the life of the elite, the beauties of the Hermitage, and the mists of darkness. This darkness is a symbol for some basic elements. The spectator identifies Russian history with the history shown here and himself with one of its actors.

The one-shot approach functions here as a synonym of real time and real history, as if reality as such was presented. But at the same time the absence of cuts causes “ideological cuts” and reductions. There is no concept of responsibility in this perception of history; therefore there is no concept of consciousness. There is no concept of personal-citizenship, but there is a concept of an artist-creator.

So the history with its actors, will, and responsibility is substituted by a non-discreet flow of events, by the hypnotizing kaleidoscope. If something happens, it just happens.

An ancient dispute between the analytical West and the synthetic East lays behind this film. The border between Russia and Europe is not a question like “who loves Tician more: Luciano Pavarotti or Alla Osipenko?”.

This difference – and that is the message of the film – is point of view: the analytical (and according to Sokurov and slavyanophiles -destructive) and creative synthetic Russian point of view. The song of the soul, as one knows it, flows. West is West and East is East.

The absence of cuts turns out to be the putting on of blinders, or turns into an inability to see something else. “God’s eye” turns to the single eye of Cyclopes Polifem. Moreover, the technical characteristics of the film deprive the spectator of the possibility of seeing from “another point of view.” This technical discovery has undoubtedly a big and successful future.

The absence of montage in this film is a very dangerous symptom for the growing symbiosis of “independent intellect” and the usurpation of point of view, which is slowly but surely taking place in Russia where, actually, even oppositional TV is brought to zero.

A free independent gaze is gliding on well-constructed and well-directed reality. It seems as though anti-utopias will soon become fashionable again.

But on the whole, the matter is not politics, but the right to look aside, in the direction which is not predicted or prescripted. And finally even with eyes wide open one could not understand what ideologically distinguishes Sokurov’s Russian Ark from the main principles of Putin’s policy.

Russian Ark seemed to be filmed to provoke the leading intellectuals inside and outside of Russia to comment on it. And they did. They talked about discourse and racourse , legitimizing this film for the intellectual circles.

To talk about the ideological mazes of the Ark is at first in sort of bad taste. Second it is politically incorrect, and finally it is simply not cool. The modern state of Russia is described under the slogan “The difficult way of Russia towards democracy” and the legendary “Russian soul” still has its market value.

Could it be that this common unanimous non-disclosure is an evidence of the common fear or common inability. Is it a new Babel? As Natasha Drubek-Meyer pointed out: “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.”

The great aims of this film have caused great loses. The blurring of differences turns into an inarticulate poetics, and so the “great message” turns into a technically unique but dubious pseudo-spiritual kitsch.

(Katja Petrovskaja, Munich)

The film is clearly a technically impressive achievement, visually rich and captivating. A museum tour, including unhurried visual examination of works of art, seems well suited for Sokurov’s cinematic style, more natural here than, for example, the at times excruciating pace of Mother and Son.

The film is brilliant as an extended advertisement for the Hermitage. As a serious meditation on Peter the Great’s Europeanization of Russia, the film seems more problematic to me, as it gives in to rather self-indulgent and elitist nostalgia for imperial Russia (e.g., the images of Nicholas II’s daughters or of Pushkin and Nathalie, based on Ulianov’s well-known painting).

The choice of the Marquis de Custine as tour guide and ideological center of the film is problematic. On the one hand, Custine as narrator offers much quirky historical, cultural, and aesthetic food for thought; on the other, his point of view is somewhat disturbing, if (as it seems) he is meant to represent the not a little condescending authorial perspective.

Russia’s genuine, Europeanized culture (the Hermitage as its “ark”) is “destined to sail forever, to live forever” (the closing words of the film). Yet this island of treasures is left floating in the mist, lost in the desert-ocean of time, fatally cut off from history.

We are left with the suggestion that the glories of Russia’s (Europeanized) past are precisely that—of the past, suspended in a vacuum, without any point of contact with the Russia of today.

(Marcus Levitt, Los Angeles)

See all six related articles:

After “After”: The Arkive Fever of Alexander Sokurov; Dragan Kujundzic (5 May 2003)

An Ark for a Pair of Media: Sokurov’s Russian Ark; Natascha Drubek-Meyer (5 May 2003)

The Empire strikes back – Sokurov Takes Revenge on de Custine; Ulrich Schmid (30 July 2003)

Sokurov’s Jubilee Film; Nele Sasz (30 July 2003)

Sokurov’s Russian Ark And The End Of Postmodernism; Raoul Eshelman (30 July 2003)

“And He Saw: It Was Good”; Katja Petrovskaja (30 July 2003)