(Russkij Kovcheg)

Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov. Russia/Germany. 2002.

Reviewed by Alan Pavelin and Howard Schumann.

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The UK release of Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), the first feature film to be shot in a single unbroken take, revisits an issue which, in one form or another, goes right back to the beginnings of cinema .  Do films represent reality, viewed in a continuous real-time manner as we see “real life”, or are they artificial constructs reliant on editing and “special effects” designed to manipulate the viewer?  Do we prefer the Lumiere brothers’ Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory (1895) to Melies’ Trip to the Moon (1902)?  (Not that many of us have seen either.) To put it simplistically: long take, or short take?

The most distinguished theoretical exponents of these rival positions were the critic Andre Bazin and the director Sergei Eisenstein. The latter developed the theory of “montage” in which, by careful editing and arrangement of shots, one can create a desired emotional impact on the viewer, deriving philosophically from Hegel’s concept of the dialectic. Eisenstein did this for didactic or propaganda purposes, most famously the Odessa Steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin (1925) and the cross-cutting between Kerensky and a peacock in October (1928). Bazin, on the other hand, championed the films of Renoir, Welles, and Wyler who, with the aid of deep-focus photography, saw no need for frequent cutting because they could show simultaneously two or more actions at varying distances from the camera. Bazin regarded this as “realism”, which he linked with the Italian neo-realist movement of the late 1940s (Rossellini, De Sica, etc.) and their documentary-style films.

In one sense, of course, all films are artificial. Even the most apparently spontaneous documentary with minimal editing involves selection as to what will appear in the finished film.  Flaherty’s Man of Aran (1933), for example, involved carefully rehearsing the “actors” in a representation of the hardships which their forbears, not they themselves, had to endure. The authentic tuna-fishing sequence of Rossellini’s Stromboli (1949) has a Hollywood star (Ingrid Bergman) sitting in one of the boats!

Russian Ark. Location photograph copyright Alexander Belenkiy.But this is not the point. Given that films are unavoidably artificial constructs, should cutting and editing within scenes be kept to a minimum?  In some cases, clearly not.  The films of Eisenstein have already been referred to; the conventional “thriller” generally needs cross-cutting to maintain suspense; a director like Godard, who likes to keep reminding the viewers that they are watching a film, deliberately uses techniques (including unnecessary cuts but also tedious long takes) to drive home that point; Bresson, Hitchcock, Kieslowski, Kurosawa, and Ozu are examples of great directors for whom editing was of supreme importance, and for the first two of whom actors were merely “models” or “cattle”.

I would maintain, however, that most modern films are over-edited. Watch a typical Hollywood movie of 60 years ago and compare it with one today; you will almost certainly find that the average length of a shot has at least halved, quite unnecessarily (reasons include suiting the shape of the TV screen, making life easier for actors, and pandering to lower attention spans).  A conversation between two or more characters nowadays often involves as many cuts as there are changes of speaker, which was never the case with the great comedies and melodramas of the 1930s, 1940s, or 1950s.  For me a cut every 5 seconds or so breaks the “flow” of a scene.  For this reason many of my favourite films tend to the “one-shot-per-scene” variety, where the total number of shots approximates to the number of minutes’ running time instead of exceeding it 20-fold.  This is what Mizoguchi strove for in his sublime Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (1939), as did Dreyer in Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964).  Ordet in particular has the camera slowly roaming around like an extra character, so that we feel we are in the room participating in the drama. Manipulative certainly; but more “real” than cutting  with every change of speaker.  Directors like Tarkovsky (particularly his last three films), Angelopoulos (with his superb choreography of groups or crowds of people) and Tarr (whose 8-minute shot of cows lumbering into a field at the start of Satantango (1994) might be thought excessive) can also be mentioned.  Tarkovsky wrote on this subject in his book Sculpting in Time, in which his disdain for his compatriot Eisenstein’s methods is apparent.

A one-act play would seem the most appropriate source for a single-shot real-time film, and this is what Hitchcock attempted in Rope (1948).  As is well-known, he tried to get round the 10-minute restriction on length of take by focusing on, say, a close-up of somebody’s dark suit as the end of the piece of film approached.  The result is generally considered a failure, with the viewer watching out for the next “join” to appear.  One can admire it as a technical achievement, not least by the actors.  Personally I prefer Hitchcock’s other “long take” film, Under Capricorn (1949), shot in a less formulaic manner than Rope.

So what about Russian Ark, with its modern technology enabling a 90-minute take?  Sokurov’s conducted tour of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, accompanied by a pageant of characters from Russian history, is certainly stunningly beautiful, and an amazing achievement when one considers that it involved the choreography of over a thousand actors for an hour and a half, with the steadicam operator continually on the move.  Towards the end, with the camera continually prowling around dancers and orchestra, there is one of the great ball scenes of cinema, comparable to those of Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) (which were not shot in unbroken takes).  The film is, however, somewhat obscure for those not versed in Russian history and in the way that Russians traditionally see themselves as an Orthodox bridge between the Catholic West and the Tartar hoards from the East, complicated by the fact that St. Petersburg is essentially a “Western” city.

But, as the minutes became an hour or more in Russian Ark, I found myself longing for a cut, as an itch longs for a scratch.  Was this just conditioning, from watching thousands of films, all with numerous cuts? Is this a sign that cinema can never approach too close to reality?  An interesting thought on which to finish.

Alan Pavelin

Focusing on three centuries of Russian history from Peter the Great to Tsar Nicholas II, Russian Ark, the latest film by Alexander Sokurov, is an amazing tour de force. Shot in one long 96-minute tracking shot with a cast of 2000 actors and extras, the film takes the viewer into the great Hermitage Collection in St. Petersburg, Russia, showing real works of art from 33 rooms and exploring their meaning in a larger context. More than just a great technical achievement, this is also a sublime meditation on the individual's place in the universe, one that does not recreate history but allows us to revisit it on a dreamlike stage where past, present, and future are one. 

The film begins in the dark with the narrator (apparently Sokurov) commenting about how little he sees. "My eyes are open", he says, "and yet I see nothing". He does not know where he is but apparently has just died in an accident of some kind. Is this a movie? A play?" he asks. He receives no answer except a vision of 18th century aristocrats moving slowly into the Tsar's palace. An elegant white-haired man in a black cloak (Sergey Dreiden) suddenly appears and escorts the confused narrator into the corridors of the grand palace. "Everyone knows the present, but who can remember the past", says the stranger as they walk from one ballroom to the next, witnessing great works of art as well as ghost-like presences from Russia's past. We see works by El Greco, Rubens and Van Dyck in their awesome splendour. We run into Peter the Great thrashing a general, Catherine the Great looking for the bathroom, and Nicholas II, the last Russian Tsar hosting the Great Royal Ball of 1913, the last such formal occasion of its kind. 

Russian Ark. Photograph copyright Alexander Belenkiy.As we enter the Great Nicholas Hall, the opulent room is filled with thousands of aristocrats dancing the mazurka in gorgeous period costumes. A full orchestra is playing in the background and young soldiers are nattily dressed in their uniforms. How beautiful it all seems and how it appears they were destined to live forever but we all know how the nasty Bolsheviki spoiled the party. Ah yes, how green was my valley then. Sokurov said he wanted to make a whole film "in one breath" and he has succeeded in simulating the breathing process, pulling us in, then moving us out as we feel the rhythm of our own life beating with the swirl of lost humanity. At the end of Russian Ark, we see the peaceful flow of a river outside the hall to which the narrator comments, "The flow is forever. Life is forever." Having completed the past, our invisible guide is now ready to move into the endless silence that is, in the phrase of the Anglican priest Thomas Kelly, "the source of all sound".

Howard Schumann
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