Motion pictures are built by editing — by joining scenes, and often moments within scenes, that were shot separately, sometimes weeks or months apart, or in separate locations. Some directors have made experimented with extended takes, unbroken shots that last for several minutes, but this approach has never been sustainable for much more than ten minutes at a time, due to the running time of a canister of film.
Once the advent of digital video freed filmmakers from the constraints of physical film, it was only a matter of time before someone made the first feature film entirely in one take, without a single edit or cut. Russian Ark, Aleksandr Sokurov’s experimental art-house meditation on Russia’s cultural heritage and current identity crisis, has the distinction of being that film.
Though casual viewers with no special interest in either film history or Russian history may be bored to tears, for serious film students Russian Ark is a must-see. Sokurov’s achievement is notable not only for being the first film shot in one take, but for offering a striking antithesis to the Soviet montage cinema of early Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein’s edit-driven approach was forward-looking and characterized by decisive, revolutionary action, reflecting Marxist optimism about the future. By contrast, Sokurov’s film is awash in nostalgia and dreamlike passiveness, reflecting the lack of a clear way forward for contemporary Russia.
For 96 trance-like minutes, Sokurov’s camera drifts from room to room in the Hermitage, a St. Petersburg monastery turned art museum, a repository (or "ark") of Russian culture. The film is also adrift in time, wandering back and forth among the centuries, with thousands of costumed extras representing 200 years of Russian history. Torn between wistful dreams of long-gone Russian glory and an uneasy awareness of the long shadow of European hegemony, Russian Ark is a dreamlike meditation on the soul of Russian culture from which the viewer finally awakens, stirred but not transformed.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.