Russian Ark (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD), Alexander Sokurov’s tribute to the Hermitage Museum through time and space created, would be worth celebrating for its technical achievement alone. In a single, unbroken shot lasting over 90 minutes, the viewer is swept not just through the breadth of the physical space but through hundreds of years of Russian history as we travel through the State Hermitage Museum of Saint Petersburg.
This isn’t documentary, it is historical pageant, with scenes staged for each room along the journey. We glide back and forth in time as we cross the threshholds from one room to another, moving from contemporary patrons appreciating the masterworks on the walls to a carpenter constructing coffins for the dead of World War I, from visits with Catherine the Great to eavesdropping on Cold War era curators discussing to the difficulties in preserving the heritage in the face of a Soviet government intent on rewriting history, and finally dancing through a 19th century ballroom in a finale suffused with a luxurious nostalgia that is as poignant as it is ambiguous.
Our guide is a spindly time traveler (Sergey Dreyden) who flits through history as if at home in other eras, and the camera is the kino-eye of our narrator (Sokurov himself). The handheld camera floats through the world as the distant observer, taking in grand long shots filled with figures or the cavernous spaces of sparsely populated rooms, and moves in to commune with the characters and take in the minute details of individual paintings and sculptures. It’s a delirious piece of cinema, a metaphor for the transporting power of artifacts and art and historical preservation to sweep us into the past, and a work of filmmaking as graceful as ballet. There is nothing else like this.