UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)


Dr Cavendish on 'Russian Ark'

Dr Philip Cavendish on the film 'Russian Ark'

March 2013

Irena Maryniak provides us with her thoughts on the evening's discussion:

The Preservation of High Culture is a pretty daunting theme, and when I first saw Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark soon after its release in 2002, I was less gobsmacked than perplexed.

So it was reassuring to hear Phil Cavendish demystify this grandiose and heavily coded film in his talk to SSEES alumni on 21 March. Technically it's an amazing stunt, with over 90 minutes of unedited video, recorded on hand-held Steadicam in the Winter Palace, and a cast of 2000 plus orchestras.

The whole venture is spectacularly audacious and reportedly succeeded on the third take - the last allowed by the Hermitage administration. Thanks to the unified shot, the longest in cinematic history, the film comes over not as a montage of disconnected scenes but a meandering, dreamlike vision of a museum that was home to Russian Imperial power for over 180 years. The circling, almost hesitant camera becomes the eye of an invisible, ghostly narrator whose voice (Sokurov's) is heard throughout, commenting, questioning, and seeking a role that stays elusive to the end.

The action ripples loosely over nearly three centuries, with impassioned exchanges about Rembrandt, van Dyck or El Greco, and intimate windows on an iconic, mythologised historical past: Peter the Great assaults a general; Catherine the Great directs a play and disappears for a pee; Nicolas I accepts a formal apology from the Shah of Persia; Nicolas and Alexandra take breakfast with the family; a starving man constructs coffins from picture frames during the Siege of Leningrad.

There is no chronological plot, just a flow of spectacular images, glimpses of historical figures or events, and snatches of dialogue between Sokurov's disembodied voice and a slightly unruly character, referred to as 'Man in Black' or 'the European', who acts as the narrator's guide and his link with the world of the senses. With a shock of grey hair, high heels, and fascination for high art and intense Russian women, the European alone acknowledges the narrator's presence and accompanies him on an exploratory walk through the Winter Palace, passing observations on the paintings, the history, the people and the country. 'Russia is like a theatre', he remarks. 'Russians imitate so well...they've no ideas of their own.'

The time-honoured issue of Russia's indebtedness to west European civilisation, and perhaps also her cultural corruption, emerges as the main theme of the dialogue and the film's recurring leitmotif. There is a sense in which this flings down the gauntlet to European 'civilisation', which has led to criticism of the Sokurov's nostalgic vignettes of the Tsarist era, and its exaltation of the idea of a self-sacrificing national spirit. Russian 'dukhovnost' (reflected less in painting, the film suggests, than in literature, music, the ability to commune with great Art, and a disposition to sacrificial acts) challenges Europe's frequently casual dismissal of Russia's cultural and historical achievement.

Sokurov's European is modelled, Phil Cavendish revealed, on a French aristocrat, the Marquis de Custine, who travelled to Russia in the late 1830s and subsequently published a scathing travelogue that dismissed Russian high culture as a superficial veneer shrouding brutality and barbarism. The Man in Black emerges as a slightly iffy, bossy and entitled figure with all the answers, an irrepressible urge to engage with innocence and a propensity to look, at times, like a caged animal. In ways that are variously playful and sinister, he interacts with the surrounding space and the characters it conjures, when the narrator cannot. The disembodied voice is licenced only to murmur comments on the European's baffling and unpredictable reactions.

Yet the narrator's gaze is also the viewer's. We are, like him, a presence in this spectacle, encountering paintings, artefacts and people contained in the Hermitage both then and now. The underlying suggestion seems to be that the building, together with the film that frames it, is the preserver, the Noah's Ark, of living breathing artistic achievement and of an Empire that, though sporadically ignorant and brutal, has also acted as custodian to the authentic spirit of European civilisation.

The finale has the entire cast - Custine excepted - departing after the last Imperial Ball in 1913, down the Jordan staircase, into what seems to be an exterior of endless of steaming waters visible through a window cut into the wall. The European (agent of darkness or political reaction? Time Lord?) has declared meanwhile that, rather than move on into the unknown, he will remain splendidly isolated inside the Russian Ark. Whither high culture?