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In one breath

July 23, 2012

On 23rd December 2001, the Hermitage in Russia was taken over by a film crew, some 2000 actors in costume, and three orchestras, to create a remarkable movie that explores Russia’s historic relationship with Europe through the eyes of a French dignitary to Russian court, the Marquis de Custine, who visited Russia in 1839.

What is remarkable about the resulting film, Russian Ark, was the ambition of its Director, Alexander Sokurov, whose intention was to make the film in one single continuous shot, which meant that shooting had to be in digital, and this was when digital was far from being the norm.  The movie is still the longest shot in history and also the most ambitious.  The cameraman, Tilman Butner had to remember a route of around 1.5km through the Hermitage, including a stint outside in the Russian winter, all the while carrying a Steadycam, and being trailed by a crew carrying 35kg of batteries and a massive hard drive.  All action was created around this route with remarkable stage direction to ensure the movie’s success.

The Hermitage was really the only place for the movie could be made, as a museum it is a monument to Russian history, but it has also been the location of significant events in Russian history, the last Imperial ball graced the floors of the Hermitage in the run up to the First World War and is re-created in the final scenes of the movie, while the last dark days of the Tsarist government also played out in its rooms and corridors before revolutionary fervour took hold.  Many of the objects used within the film are historically authentic, it really is Catherine the Great’s china that honours the banqueting tables, and in order to comply with Hermitage procedures security guards were used as extras in order to ensure the safety of the collection.

Although the film is one continuous shot, the narrative is not chronological and time jumps between centuries as the camera moves between rooms with the Marquis acting as guide and narrator during the journey.  It does take some time to adjust to the cinematic language, we are used to the short scenes and blunt drama of Hollywood, but once you adjust your expectations, Russian Ark is deeply rewarding, it is both epic and poetic, and reminds us that culture is the ark that keeps us all living.

There is also an interesting documentary on the making of Russian Ark in five parts, first part is here.

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