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Scene Analysis: Russian Ark

July 23, 2013

Scene Analysis: Russian Ark

Grand Finale: “We are destined to sail forever, to live forever”

Russian Ark

**Please note that since I wrote this, the specific video was removed from YouTube. To access the scene I analyse, follow the above link and ignore the timings I specify in the below piece. **

When people talk about the best historical dramas ever made, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark rarely gets a mention, but this stunning 96-minute, single-take odyssey through the fascinating and turbulent history of the largest country on this planet is one of the great historical movies – finding the artfulness and transcendentalism amid its crazily ambitious logistical pageant.

In this climactic scene, at the end of the unseen narrator’s (essentially the camera’s) tread through Russian/Soviet history, all the players in that history embark on a metaphoric departure from the Hermitage Museum (the symbolic ‘ark’ of Sokurov’s historical thesis). What’s great about the opening of the scene, and Sokurov’s roving single-take modus operandi in total, is that there’s no demonstrable acting going on. At 0:03 a lady looks round – is this intentional, or a by-product of her amateurish confusion about where she’s meant to be going at this moment? Either way, it adds a certain sprawling authenticity to proceedings, and it’s only in the gradual heightening of the orchestral music (0:07) that we gain the sense that we’re watching something profound.

You’ll notice at 0:20 the camera turns upwards, and there’s a segment of disembodied dialogue, again imprinting the sense that it’s the camera’s panoramic gaze over this impression of Russian history that’s important, not the mini dramas taking place around it. When a person voices that “it’s like a dream” (0:26), it outs Sokurov’s transcendental design. It’s a scene about spectacle, not diegesis, and the sheer logistical immensity of the number of people involved in this flight from the museum gives it its power. That’s not to say that Sokurov doesn’t show some playfulness with his scenario, purposely having one of the aristocrats turn abruptly round at 1:16 to go and look for his colleagues.

By 1:45 Sokurov’s stunning cinematography takes over, cutting a swathe down the middle of its Russian personnel, and framing them in the splendour of the architecture of the Hermitage. At 2:40, Sokurov has infused the scale of his scene with artfulness. The sound design is ever more echoed and haunted, and the camera retreats to a quiet door away from the action (similar to the genius moment earlier in the film, when the narrator uncovers a disused room that symbolises the awful horrors and sacrifices that made Soviet history in the 20th Century with its 1917 revolution, subsequent civil war, then catastrophic, unequalled losses in WW2). It’s here that Sokurov’s monumental treatise gets its poignant pay-off. The narrator laments the loss of his conduit through Russian history, and reflects on the flux of history, gazing on the dreamlike evocation of the Hermitage (aka Russian history) floating on an ark, destined to “sail forever”, to “live forever”. (July 2013)

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