Russian Ark has only one shot. This shot, however, is 94 minutes long. There are no cuts and lots of movement. If these were the only things that I could say about the film, it would already be one of the finest cinematic feats ever accomplished. But this is not the only challenge of Russian Ark, because by letting the viewer assume the role of the camera, the film becomes a journey of discovery and a meditation on Russian history.
The film begins in darkness and we hear the voice of the character we will follow along on this adventure. He discovers, as we do, that he has been magically transported to the 1800s, and we follow some revelers on their way to a grand ball through the labyrinthine corridors of the Hermitage Museum—the perfect setting because of its grand spaces and ornate beauty. We are given unique access not only to the spaces of the museum but also important historical moments. We see Peter the Great ordering the execution of his son, and are present when the grandson of the Shah of Persia comes to offer his personal apology to Tsar Nicholas I. Each brilliantly recreated event conspires with the movement of the camera to create the feeling that the viewer is not only observing history, but participating in it.
This becomes very clear in the last part of the film, where the camera and narrator and his companion all take part in an elaborately choreographed ball. The camera moves through the dance floor to the dancers and gets lost in the euphoria of the moment, then moves to the orchestra, and back to the floor. Finally, as the dance ends, the camera accompanies the guests down the enormous staircase and out the door. Since the characters number in the hundreds, and the camera has to move at the same speed they do, the camera, the actors and the audience are all present in an authentic moment.
Russian Ark is a magnificent film. Director Alexandr Sokurov has done an exceptional job in bringing some of the fundamental concerns of 21st-century Russia to the fore by examining a past that now exists only in the gold inlays and parquet floors of the Hermitage.