Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A walk through Russian history


The trailer for the film Russian Ark goes something like this: 2000 actors, 300 years of Russian history 3 live orchestras, 33 rooms of the Hermitage Museum and  one... single... continuous.... shot.  Isn't that an amazing feat in itself? I happen to think that this incredibly gorgeous film is one of the greatest ever made. It's dreamy, enigmatic, full of history, hope and change, yet also reveals a kind of wondrous, ponderous, aching melancholy for a time that will never again be. 


A mournful ghost—a newly deceased, fabulously eccentric 19th century French Marquis—brings us on a grand sweep of Russian history, conversing with us and guiding us though rooms with various historical vignettes. We saunter with him though opulent, art-filled rooms of Catherine the Great's Winter Palace—now the Hermitage museum—in St. Petersburg, Russia. "Everyone knows the present, but who can remember the past?" he asks.

With this time-traveling French ghost we come across Peter the Great who is verbally thrashing a general, we see Catherine the Great running to the bathroom after watching a theater performance, and we see Nicholas II and Alexandra's daughters (including Anastasia), dashing and dancing through gilded arched hallways like giggling forest nymphs.


Towards the end of the film we see Nicholas—the last Russian Tsar—hosting the final formal Great Royal Ball just before WWI in 1913. The camera swirls with the crowd as an orchestra plays in the background. Thousands of beautifully dressed aristocrats and snappy young soldiers—all in their white gloves—waltz the evening away. After the ball when the guests are all leaving is when I felt the crushing sadness of this dying time of history... of its customs and ultimately, the ruling monarchy.


At the final scene of this glorious film we slowly leave the doors of Catherine's palace and see a peaceful misty scene outside with the flowing Neva river to which the French ghost comments, "The flow is forever. Life is forever." Having completed the past, our French guide is now ready to move into the endless silence that is "the source of all sound." He goes on to say "Look. The sea is all around. We are destined to sail forever. To live forever." Isn't that lovely?

The creative brilliance of director Alexander Sokurov and cinematographer Tilman B├╝ttner astounded me. Brush up on your Russian history before seeing this film, but do see it... and more than once! 

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I was lucky enough to visit Russia and this beautiful palace with Dan back in 2005, so I certainly relate to this film on an intimate level. I found each and every high-ceilinged room and grand staircase I visited there to be filled with historical magic and wonder. Below are some photos we took on our visit.

photos, Dan Ryan & Diane Carnevale


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