A few days ago, via Netflix, we saw a true cinematic tour de force, made in 2002. It was "Russian Ark," and its makers speak of it as having been filmed "all in one breath." That is, it was photographed in a single continuous shot that lasted for 90 minutes, precisely as long as it takes to run.
Maybe that has been done before, but it would still be a tremendous feat for even the most modest movie. But this is probably as extravagant a film as it is possible to make, within a time span of "only" an hour and a half. The makers claim to have used 867 actors, plus over 1,000 extras, but for me the dividing line between the two was badly blurred. There were a few people portraying various historical characters from 300 years of Russian history, but even the most important of them, considering the buildings in which the movie was set, Catherine the Great, had just a couple of lines. Because of that, and despite all the assembled hundreds of basically party-goers, "Russian Ark" is basically a a one-person though two-voiced film.
That single dominating character, the holder of the first voice, is an extremely knowledgeable Frenchman from the 18th century. He is perhaps a famous writer, and he is always plainly visible because his drab grayish-black garb with some odd humps standing up on the ends of the shoulders is in strong contrast to the bright and highly colorful costumes of everyone else. We see him mostly from the rear, because he is the guide that the second voice and frankly we are glad to cling to, and it is mostly through him that we get an inkling as to what is going on. At first, in the film's mysterious beginning, even this guide doesn't seem to know that.
"What city are we in? Who are all these people? Where are they going? What's up these stairs? Why am I speaking Russian? I hoped to be in Chambord, in the second Directoire. My Russian was never that good. Why are we speaking perfect Russian?"
The guide and the holder of the second voice, operating from our point of view, constantly carry on a conversation like that. That unseen speaker purports to be a ghost, with his words spoken by the director, Sokurov. The French guide has to be a ghost, too, even though once in a while he is seen and he interacts with some of the people milling around, though usually he is unnoticed.
This is exactly the same as things would go with me in that situation. Could this mean that when something decides my time has come, I could argue that it isn't really necessary?
I would think that this film has its strongest impact when you haven't seen it and have no idea of what to expect, so maybe I shouldn't be saying anything at all about it. But I figure that it doesn't matter here because the readership of this weblog is so sparse, and because those one or two readers are not likely to immediately put "Ark" at the top of their Netflix queue. But it could also make the film all the more fascinating when you know about the "one breath" business and that somehow you have gotten mixed up in a melee of the Russian nobility having one last fling of dancing, chatting, being seen, and what-not, in all the vaunted magnificence of the Hermitage and the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, before -- but not in this film -- the last Czar's immediate family, including all five of the daughters, are shot in a basement, and the gray days of the Russian Revolution take hold.
Like almost all grand conceptions, this film is primarily the work of one man with a gigantic vision, a Russian director named Alexander Sokurov. But this film is also unusual in that, as important as he is, Sokorov has to share a great deal of the top credit with the main cameraman, a German named Tilman Buttner, as shown in the added info section, a regular feature of Netflix discs. Among other things Buttner not only had to memorize in complete detail the entire course of that epic trek through all those rooms and people and sometimes out in the fabled Russian snow, but also he had to shuffle along tightly enclosed in a knot of five or six assistants, while he was bent over the entire time, like a very weird-looking zombie, eternally peering through his viewfinder and manipulating this and that. And long before the end of the shot, feeling severe pains in his groin and fearing that he was about to become so ill that he might never walk again, he very nearly had to stop shooting and so break the severe time limit and the conception.
Since it was shot in the Hermitage, you would expect to see a lot of the paintings for which this museum is so renowned. And you do see a few, primarily the huge ones that Catherine the Great collected, by artists like Van Dyck and Rubens. But like the buildings themselves, the artwork serves mainly as background to the people thronging the place, so that the lighting on the paintings is considerably duller and dimmer than it is on the crowds, maybe a constraint imposed by the museum people.
I also couldn't help thinking that despite all the talk about this occasion being about Russia, it represented only a very small part of what I conceive Russia to be, past and present. Nothing that I could pick up was said about all those serfs, peasants, city laborers, soldiers fated to die wholesale, and countless others, out in the cold, surrounding, rough-hewn vastnesses, working hard at all those enterprises that made possible all this finery and revelry by the highly privileged and the long departed czar figures.
The film ends with all the celebrants having disappeared somewhere, while we and the Frenchman and the owner of the unseen voice who has spoken for us look out through a deserted side exit at a frosty sea that is depicted as forever surrounding everything that we have just witnessed and experienced. And the film's last words claim that all those nobles, officers, their ladies, and the like still live and always will, though we know different. The Hermitage is real, but for all their gorgeous get-ups and their supreme self-confidence and their endlessly casual and clever chatter, those hundreds of the joyfully anointed were only ghosts, too.