Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Essays

Sokurov’s Rich, One-Take ‘Russian Ark’

‘Russian Ark’

Alexander Sokurov’s tribute to the State Hermitage Museum of Saint Petersburg, a tour through time and space created in a single, unbroken shot lasting over ninety minutes, is a cinematic experience like no other. Neither documentary nor traditional narrative, it is sui generis, marrying history and art in a tour-de-force act of filmmaking that is as graceful as a ballet and as thoughtful as an essay.

The camera floats through the rooms and hallways and crowds like the disembodied spirit of our mysterious narrator (voiced in the intimate rumble of an interior monologue by the director himself), at times guided by an eccentric host identified in the credits only as “the Stranger,” a spindly, aristocratic time traveler who slips back and forth through history and seems at home in every era. Crossing the threshold to each gallery is like stepping into another era, from the modern museum teeming with contemporary patrons to an 18th-century reception when it was the Winter Palace of the Tsar to a storeroom filled coffins for the dead of World War I to the reverie of the last royal ball of 1913. It’s a dance through history and Sokurov is the master choreographer.

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Posted in: by Robert Horton, Contributors, Film Reviews

‘Faust’: Alexander Sokurov’s Lively Take on the German Tale

Johannes Zeiler in ‘Faust’

For a movie called Faust, director Alexander Sokurov takes his sweet time getting to the money shot. The film is at least three-quarters done by the time Faust—here a philosophical surgeon in a grubby, early-19th-century German village—gets around to signing away his soul to the devil. But this is only one of the many variations the Russian filmmaker has played on the famous tale, a delirious and destabilizing version that took the top prize at the 2011 Venice Film Festival.

After a wild special-effects shot that descends from the heavens (a flight through the clouds that perhaps pays homage to a similar sequence in F.W. Murnau’s great silent Faust from 1926), we meet Faust (Johannes Zeiler) in the middle of an autopsy.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Videophiled: The Grace and Grandeur of ‘Russian Ark’

RussianArkRussian 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.

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