06 June 2014

Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark

“Some live on top of skeletons
others live on the water.”
-  from My Winter Palace (Mon Paradis: Der Winterpalast) a film by Austrian Elfi Mikesh, also filmed in 2002 at St. Petersburg.

“Long did I build you, oh house!
With each memory I carried stones
From the bank to your topmost wall
And I saw your roof mellowed by time
Changing as the sea
Dancing against a background of clouds
With which it mingled its smokes.” 
 -  from Maison de Vent (Wind House) by Louis Guillaume, translated from the French by Maria Jolas

St. Petersburg: an improbable city, built on marshlands with the labor of thousands of conscripts,  was the creation of one man, Peter the Great.  A new city  in world historical terms, St. Petersburg became the official capital of Russia in 1712.  To begin with, the Russian army had wrested control of land around the delta of the Neva River away from Sweden in 1703.  The Tsar's original goal of Russian access to the Baltic Sea trade became the basis for his dream of a "window on Europe."   Crowned at the age of ten, Peter's ambitions were vast and so were his achievements, no matter the cost lives and treasure.
As the Romanov Dynasty prepared to celebrate its 300th anniversary in 1913, Peter's dream had come to a glorious fruition.  The Silver Age of Russian culture (1890-1920) produced artists and poets of the caliber of Anna Akhmatova, Leon Bakst, Aleksandr Benois, Anton Chekhov, and Sergei Diaghilev.  But Tsar Nicolas and Empress Aleksandra, preoccupied with the precarious health of their only son and heir,  failed to notice signs that the people were growing impatient with their rulers.  The Revolution of 1905 brought political reforms that were only bandages to a bleeding body politic.   Thus, the last Grand Ball became so only in retrospect and, in film-maker Aleksander Sokurov, it has found its poet.

"One must be light of heart and hand,
Holding and taking, holding and letting go.
Those who are not so, life punishes,
And God has no mercy upon them."
 - The opening couplets from Der Rosenkavalier, 1911, by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, translated from the French by Maria Jolas.

In Vienna, where the Habsburg Empire was also troubled, Hugo von Hoffmansthal (1847-1929) brooded over the retrospective view, too.  He set the libretto of Der Rosenkavalier in 1740s Vienna at the court of Empress Maria Theresa.   All is light and airy as a Viennese pastry in this Richard Strauss opera.  Not quite like real life, as things turned out.  The Empress gave birth to a daughter on November 2, 1755, the day after the All Saints Day earthquake in Lisbon.  The daughter grew up to become the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette.  Monarchy ending badly, and not for the last time.  An ending foreshadowed now in a great film, Aleksnader Sokurov's Russian Ark.

“The blizzard had calmed in pine groves,
But, tipsy without any wines,
- Ophelia over her waters –
White silence all night sang to us.
And he, who’d been seemed not still clear,
Was then with this silence engaged,
And, gone, he stayed graciously here
With me till the end of my Age.”
-          Eulogy of the Spring’s Eve by Anna Akhmatova, translated from the Russian by Yevgeny Bonver

In eighty-six minutes, we travel through three centuries of Russian history from the founding of St. Petersburg through the Siege of Leningrad in 1943, see more than a millennium of art in the halls of of the Hermitage, a complex that includes the Winter Palace, and it is presented - miraculously -  "all in one breath."
It took four years to prepare to make Russian Ark and one day to film it.  The Hermitage Museum could be closed  only a short time, so the film was shot on  December 23, the shortest day of the year in 2001.  After thirty-six hours of setting up, the crew had just four hours to complete shooting during daylight (between 12:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.).  The cast, comprising 800 actors and 1,600 extras, had to be ready and in place before shooting began.  The crew calculated that, if anything went awry, they could stop action during the first twenty minutes and begin again; after that, they could stop for nothing.  The finished film was their fourth take.

The onscreen narrator of Russian Ark is based on a real person, Adolphe-Louis, Marquis de Custine (1790-1857), a French diplomat and author of Empire of the Czar: A Journey Through Eternal Russia (1839).   Custine spent most of his Russian days in St. Petersburg.  A political reactionary in French terms, Custine was appalled at the Russian aristocracy for having "just enough of the gloss of European civilization to be 'spoiled as savages' but not enough to become cultivated men. They were like trained bears who made you long for the wild ones."  Custine's off-screen companion throughout the is the voice of the filmmaker himself, Alexandr Sokurov.  Their first exchange gives us the flavor of Custine's voice as we find it in his writings, not so diplomatic.
     “What city is this?” -  Marquis de Custine
     “What city? Well, everyone speaks Russian.” - Aleksandr Sokurov
     “I so hoped this was Chambord during the Directoire period.” -  Marquis de Custine 


So balletic is the camera movement of German cinematographer Tilman Buttner that the viewer never questions why, in some scenes, Custine moves invisibly through crowds of people and at other times he stops to chat with persons from various historical periods ( not always presented in the order in which they occurred).
The two men rehearse the encounter between Russian and European culture, a classic love-hate relationship that has preoccupied Russians, especially artists, for a very long time.  Andrei Biely, for instance, intended his novel The Silver Dove  (1909  ?) to be the first of a trilogy on that perennial Russian theme, East or West?   At the time, Biely wrote, he was cooling his heels in the peasant village of Bobronsk, in exile far from the artistic center of the Silver Age.
“Russian music makes me break out in hives,” Custine snarls when he hears the haunting strains of a Glinka Nocturne in the distance.  There is also a third shadowy man, the nameless spy who follows Custine’s every movement, a fact Custine railed against in his book.  The Romanovs, it seems,  left nothing to chance except the important things.
Marquiis de Custine criticized St. Petersburg as the singular creation of one man, something the aristocrat might been expected to admire.  His comments suggest that the Marquis knew about those Potemkin villages constructed during the reign of Catherine the Great.   "I came here to see a country, but what I find is a theater. The names are the same as everywhere else.  In appearances everything happens as it does everywhere else. There is no difference except in the very foundation of things."  But what a theater.
The Romanov Dynasty was well into its second century when Catherine the II commissioned the French-born Florentine architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli to create a new Winter Palace for her.  Completed in 1764, the complex was promptly dubbed “the Russian Versailles” by a local poet, Lomonosov.   France was, even then, the gold standard of international culture.  Among other innovations, Rastrelli’s inspired coloring of the stucco warmed the exteriors  of his stone buildings  in ice cream tints of blue, green, pink, and yellow, giving St. Petersburg is distinctive appearance. (It was no affectation, but a realistic reflection of mores among Russian aristocrats, that when Leo Tolstoy came to write War And Peace, fully two per cent of the text  - all of it dialogue - was written in French.   The affectation was all on the part of the self-consciously nouveau riches, so too speak.)
To fill her new Winter Palace, Catherine dispatched agents on a buying spree to scoop up entire art collections from Germany, France, and Italy.  They brought back the Raphaels, Rembrandts, and Poussins that have made the Hermitage one of the foremost museums in the world.  The works of the English portraitist Sir Anthony Van Dyck, may have especially appealed to Catherine’s desire to burnish the Russian court’s reputation, for the attractive image they presented of Charles I and his Royal Court.  After belittling Catherine’s taste in Italian art, when an enraptured Custine spots Antonio Canova’s marble version of The Three Graces (c. 1817) he cannot resist a dig at his Russian hosts”  “Canova almost married my mother!”

Hegel’s definition of art as “the sensuous presentation of ideas” comes to mind more than once during Custine’s encounters as he views the collection.  He joins Tamara Kurenkova, a blind sculptor who plays herself in the film, where she has stopped by the main staircase to touch a winged marble statue on her way to the Rembrandt Gallery.  He also spots a young man lost in contemplation before El Greco's painting of Peter and Paul..  When the young man declares himself an atheist, the Catholic Custine interrogates  him at length, wanting to know what a religious painting means to him if he is unfamiliar with the scriptures. 
Buttner’s camera tracks forward and back through space, zooming inward or outward as Sokurov’s script plays with the elastic nature of  time, a reminder that the movement of history is, among other things, a visual palimpsest.  We see young girls running back and forth in a hallway hung with portraits of past Romanovs and then a door opens into the exquisite small dining room where Nicolas and Alexandra and the little czarinas sit down to tea, a white rose centerpiece an emblem as innocent as the scene itself.  All too soon as we know, after Czar Nicolas II is forced to abdicate in March of 1917, the provisional government will be overthrown by the Bolsheviks in this very room. 

 “Winter is by far the oldest of the seasons.  Not only does it confer age on our memories, taking us back to a remote past but, on snowy days, the house too is old.  It is as though it were living in the past of centuries gone by.” -  Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space, translated from the French by Maria Jolas
Words that could apply to the Romanovs.  For its final episode, the movie flashes back to the winter of 1913, to the last Imperial Ball.  The Mariinsky Orchestra plays the program from that melancholy occasion as three hundred couples dance on the highly polished floor - for the first time since 1913.  What is real life but history, and vice versa?

Sokuorv's compression of time and events is, paradoxically, given the breathing room to happen by the unprecedented non-stop take.  The little czarinas race back and forth in the family portrait gallery, its walls lined with generations of Romanovs, their  energy and  heedlessness an implicit comment on.the absence of the little Prince Alexei, forbidden to run and jump, the only boy of this generation and a hemophiliac.  A disease that was a death sentence then, that would soon be subsumed by the death sentence meted out to the entire Romanov  family by the Bolsheviks.

But before those grisly murders, we go through the door at the far end of the gallery to enter the small dining room.  There Nicolas and Alexandra and their children sit down to tea, the little czarinas so like the white roses they gather around.  It will be in this same room, as Russians know, that the provisional government was overthrown by the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution of 1917.


After three hundred years, the rule of the Romanovs was growing weak.  For the tri-centennial celebration, the Mariinsky Orchestra played as three hundred couples danced.  When the music ends, a pensive Custine bids goodbye to his host.  “Farewell Europe.  It is over.”   We  watch as the guests descend the grand staircase, down and around and down, heading into oblivion.   We know that their class is doomed; overhearing wisps of their conversations is excruciating:  “It feels like we are floating.”  The future, as unfathomable as the Neva, waits. 

Is the Hermitage an ark?   It certainly appears so in the film’s closing moments as the camera moves past the departing guests to the prospect beyond the doors, across the steaming waters of the Neva, not yet frozen over,  gusts of wind swaying as the vapors rise like so many ghostly fingers pointing. But we who watch as the festive crowds stream out of the palace, planning  future balls, know that they are doomed.   Culture, Sokurov believes,  is the ark that will keep humanity alive.
The last words are Sokurov's, addressed to the absent Custine, voiced over icy cold images that evoke the terrible Siege of Leningrad in 1943.  More than one million Russians perished as the Germans blockaded and bombarded the city; the Hermitage was one of the Wehrmacht's favorite targets. Yet the Russian people had the pride to hide and even bury most of its precious artworks.  If you belong to the tribe that demands relevance from its movies, think of this when you hear the suggestion that the City of Detroit should sell off the art collection of the Detroit Museum of Art to pay debts.  

Sir, sir.  It's a pity you're not here with me.  You would understand everything.  Look.  The sea is all around.  We are destined to sail forever.  To live forever.” - Aleksandr Sokurov


The world is large, but within us
it is as deep as the sea.  - Rainer Maria Rilke, translated from the French by Maria Jolas.

Aleksandr Sokurov was born in 1951 at Podorvikha, Irkutsk District, Siberia.  He studied history at Gorky University and cinematography at the All-Union Cinematography Institute in Moscow. 
Sokurov has explained why he wanted to shoot Russian Ark in one eighty-six minute take. “I don't want to experiment with time.   I want to screen real time.  It should be as it is. One doesn't have to fear the flow of time.”  Sokurov has been remarkably faithful to the historical record, also to  the moderns who appear in the film: the ballerina, the doctor, and even Mikhail Piotrovksy, Director of the Hermitage Museum are real people.  The result is a rare achievement in poetic and spiritual film-making.  But there are other opinions.  Some critics called Russian Ark a stunt when it was released, others have been frustrated that they can't discuss it in terms of their favored tools of the trade, editing and framing.   Perhaps they have confused means and ends, or perhaps they have just forgotten the important things.

For further information, visit The Island of Sokurov

Images: unless otherwise noted, are stills from Russian Ark, a film by Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002.
1. St. Peterburg, Neva River at left, the Hermitage at right - from Ember Stuff
2. Entering the Winter Palace for a ball in 1800.
3. Marquis de Custine in the Raphael Loggias at the Hermitage..
4. Custine enters the Rembrandt rooms.
5. Custine is guided by Tamara Kurenkova.
6. Custine and the young atheist with El Greco's Peter and Paul (c.1587-92)
7. Catherine walks between the Hermitage and the Winter Place. 
8. Catherine the Great walking (close-up). 
9. Chidlren playing in the gallery of the Romanov portraits.
10. Custine in the Grand Ballroom.
11. Descending the Grand Staircase after the last ball.
12. The Neva River seen from the entrance to the Hermitage..


Hels said...

I loved the film a few years ago and saw it twice. But I kept getting my times slipping and changing. Certainly we moderns who watched the festive crowds stream out of the palace know that they are doomed. But if the monarchy was going to end badly, it was going to come as a great shock to the aristocrats in Aleksnader Sokurov's Russian Ark.

Jane said...

The care and attention to detail that went into the making of "Russian Ark" seems like love to me. The film certainly rewards repeated viewings. Even if a viewer knows little about Russia to begin with, Sergei Dreiden's performance as Marquis de Custine is fascinating to watch. He is magnetic.