Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 32, October 2003



Dorota Ostrowska


Sokurov's _Russian Ark_



_Russian Ark_

Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov (2001)


Aleksandr Sokurov's relationship with tradition is a single, logical, and consciously constructed element of his film art. [1] This naturally makes _Russian Ark_ a meditation, a study, and a negotiation of this relationship. The film itself, the interviews with its author, and the few articles written about his works reveal the complexity of Sokurov's concept of tradition, and the numerous ways in which the filmmaker engages with it. There is a question of the place of _Russian Ark_ in the context of Russian filmmaking, in the context of Western filmmaking, and in the context of the history of fine arts -- painting in particular. The ways in which Sokurov places his film with regard to these different traditions becomes his contribution to an overarching and broader issue of the relationship between Western and Russian artistic traditions.


The question of difference between these two traditions crops up in the critical reviews of not only _Russian Ark_, but also of Sokurov's earlier films. Frederic Jameson's article, 'On Soviet Magic Realism', about Sokurov's adaptation of a Russian science-fiction novel, _Days of Eclipse_, opens with a statement that, 'Soviet Science-Fiction was always instructively different from its Western counterpart'. [2] Ian Christie, who in the recent years has been responsible for bringing Sokurov's filmmaking to the attention of English-speaking audiences, describes Sokurov's artistic experiments as having 'a peculiarly Russian form'. [3] Sokurov himself contrasts the West and Russia by referring to Russia as 'the land of inspiration and illumination' and to Europe as 'the domain of disciplined intellect'. [4]


It is in regard to this question of difference that the dialogue of _Russian Ark_ between an off-screen voice and the French Marquis could serve as the *mise en abyme* of Sokurov's film. This dialogue is an effort to establish with some degree of certainty the place and the time of the encounter. This questioning is prolonged and confused by new elements brought in by the movement of the camera in the course of the film. The multiplication of the possible answers could perhaps be seen as a reflection of Sokurov's questioning attitude towards his relationship with traditions.


The undeniable attraction of _Russian Ark_, and the technical achievement of the film, lies in its being created in one take, 'in one breathe', as Sokurov describes it. [5] The choice of this radical formal strategy contrasts Sokurov's work with that of another famous Russian, Sergei Eisenstein, who became renowned for his theory and use of montage in film. Eisenstein created meaning through conflict and contrast between the shots, and valued rupture rather than continuity, revolution over evolution. Sokurov distances himself from the fascination Eisenstein and montage hold for Western critics and filmmakers. For Sokurov, in films such as _Strike_ (1924), Eisenstein appears to be overwhelmed with political concerns while artistic preoccupations take the back seat. 'Maybe this is why you Westerners love him so much, because of his socio-political ideas', Sokurov muses. [6] In light of such views, Christie is right when he remarks that Sokurov 'believes it's still possible to kick politics out of cinema and restore *the rights of aesthetics*'. [7] Does this mean that Sokurov wants to position his art as a completely new phenomenon in the history of Russian cinema, virtually independent from the work of Soviet filmmakers?


Sokurov appears to renounce Eisenstein and the use of montage on ethical, artistic, and political grounds. For Sokurov, who regards film as a living body, the use of montage is unacceptable on moral grounds because it constitutes a violation of the filmic body. Sokurov's critique of montage shows how he distances himself from a very long tradition of filmmaking in Russia, born roughly at the same time as the Bolshevik revolution. This attitude is also reflected, at least to some degree, in the subject matter of _Russian Ark_, which is a tour of an art collection established by Russian tsars and an excursion into different periods of Russian imperial history ending with the last pre-revolutionary ball. In many ways, _Russian Ark_ is a piece full of nostalgia for both pre-revolutionary Russia and also pre-revolutionary Russian art. Even more importantly, _Russian Ark_ is an effort to move away from the revolutionary lineage for Russian cinema and an attempt to reinforce its links with non-Russian artistic traditions.


What is most striking is Sokurov's humility and reverence for the Western fine arts tradition. He says: 'What can I say when I go to the Hermitage museum to shoot _Russian Ark_ and see Rembrandt and El Greco standing behind me? I must always remember I am only a film director'. [8] In Sokurov's eyes, cinema's place in the pantheon of arts is below painting. He also believes that cinema, brought by montage too close to literature, still lacks its own language of artistic expression. Cinema needs to develop its alphabet which would place formal limitations upon filmmakers and would impose artistic rigueur upon them. [9] Christie remarks that such critical attitude towards cinema is more *Russian* than Sokurov would like us to believe. Even Eisenstein's cinema has been reproached for lagging behind what had been achieved in other arts. [10] Such lament was also heard in Paris in the late 1950s when Francois Truffaut identified some undesirable tendency in French cinema which was bringing it to an artistic standstill.


Sokurov attempts to gain cinema its cultural place by relating it closely to painting. The making of _Russian Ark_ was the first step in developing this lineage. According to Sokurov, the images of _Russian Ark_ were obtained through the composition, manipulation, and adjustment of colour and light. [11] In other words, shot images served as canvas on which Sokurov was able to execute his cinematic composition. In Sokurov's view, the art to which cinema is related and out of which it grows is painting rather than literature or Soviet cinematic tradition. The cinematic tradition to which Sokurov's formal strategy and vision of cinematic art seem to relate most closely is that of the French _Cahiers du cinema_ in the 1950s and early 1960s. Sokurov's arguments about the art of cinema especially evoke those of the _Cahiers du cinema_ critics.


The starting point for the reflections of Sokurov and _Cahiers du cinema_ is the same. When Sokurov speaks about the art of cinema, one gets a sense that it is a young art in need of a definition, a formal language, and a way of anchoring itself in the history of Western arts. At the same time, Sokurov is far more dismissive of the achievement of cinema in the last one hundred years than the _Cahiers_ critics have ever been. For instance, while the _Cahiers_ critics were bringing in the literary canon in order to argue that a comparable canon should be developed in cinema, Sokurov says that there are no figures such as Thomas Mann or Charles Dickens in cinema yet. [12] However, Sokurov's position is not qualitatively different from that of the _Cahiers_ critics and future nouvelle vague filmmakers. Rather, it is a difference of degrees concerning the level of difficulty required to make cinema into an art in its own right.


This attitude of raising the stakes so high for cinema before any of its achievements can be recognized may have something to do with the environment of the Brezhnev era in which Sokurov's ideas developed. Known commonly as the period of stagnation in the history of the Soviet Union, it was also the time 'of intense inner life for many Russian artists and intellectuals'. [13] Insulated from the proliferation of music and pop art taking place in the West, Russian artists were engaged in the study of music, painting, and the literary canon in a way which made 'classic art seem utterly contemporary', as Christie notes. [14] Sokurov himself spent a long time in Gorky, one of the *closed* Russian cities, with no contact with the West. This forced isolation resulted in a more intense relationship with the canonical arts, in the limited exposure to the Western cinematic tradition, and in the rejection of the Soviet one. Thus, although the ingredients of the _Cahiers_ reflection and Sokurov's ideas about art are similar, the conditions in which Sokurov's ideas developed were far more extreme.


Just like the _Cahiers_ critics, Sokurov refers to the documentary style of Flaherty and the highly formalistic cinema of Robert Bresson. [15] Among French filmmakers associated with both _Cahiers du cinema_ and the nouvelle vague there is a filmmaker, Alain Resnais, whose artistic objectives came very closely to those of Sokurov. The affinity between them is particularly visible when comparing _Russian Ark_ to Alain Resnais's _L'Annee derniere a Marienbad_ (1961). The parallels between these two films are uncanny and striking because their experiments are very similar in nature, such as the long take and collective history in the case of Sokurov, and montage and individual mind in Resnais's film. Sokurov uses one long take to lead us through the collective history of pre-revolutionary Russia. He wants to show us what it is like to live inside a museum -- which he compares to an inside of a Faberge egg. [16] Resnais uses montage to illustrate how thought and the individual mind work. The structuring device in both films is a dialogue between two individuals which reveals their constant uncertainty regarding place, time, and purpose. Furthermore, both filmmakers roll their cameras along corridors of eighteen-century palaces.


Resnais and Sokurov subvert the established modes of filmmaking -- montage in the case of Resnais, documentary filmmaking in the case of Sokurov -- in order to create meanings which are not traditionally linked with them. Resnais uses montage to create a piece which, at the time of the Algerian War, was widely criticized for its lack of political dimension. Sokurov brings to the extreme Bazinian principle of realist filmmaking the context of a lifeless and fictionalized subject: paintings and stereotypical vignettes from a pre-revolutionary past. Just like Resnais, Sokurov takes the established mode of expression and uses it in the new context. Ultimately, it is his use of the realist mode of expression, added to his concept of painting, which gives us the best insight into Sokurov's view of tradition as an organizing concept of his art -- a view that is illustrated in the experiments of _Russian Ark_.


For Sokurov, paintings are living creatures because they are infused with the creative energy of their makers. He says that 'our relations to painting and to original sculptures are the same as our relation to living beings . . . it is simply an organic belief in the fact that fundamental high art is live energy that has been preserved to our days'. [17] This idea is best understood when it is compared to the interest in brushstroke among art critics. The volume and energy of brushstroke can only be appreciated in the immediate contact with a painting which is a source of a unique sensory experience. It is this experience that the maker of _Russian Ark_ is trying to convey in his film. However, it still may be difficult to appreciate the vitality of paintings (and as a result that of the film as well) because they seem to be closer to dead bodies or mummies than to living beings. Interestingly enough, as Sokurov's critic Mikhail Iampolski describes, such *death* vision of paintings also resonates in Sokurov's universe, for whom dead bodies carry an unfaltering attraction. Iampolski suggests that in all Sokurov's films the body acquires some special attributes after death. [18] This implies that the meaning dwells outside the body of a human being; it is located in thoughts, deeds, and aspirations. For Sokurov, then, films are such metaphorical bodies and carriers of meanings associated with the past.


Sokurov was able to realize his complex artistic ideas thanks to digital technology. It allowed him to relate cinema closely to painting, challenge the documentary filmmaking tradition, and distance himself from the montage tradition of the Soviet filmmaking. _Russian Ark_ constitutes an attempt to return the ark of the Russian cinematic tradition to its sources -- Western visual art -- from the communist and post-communist deluge. What _Russian Ark_ manages to create aesthetically is a new departure for both Western and Russian filmmaking.


The Queen's College

Oxford University, England





1. See Aleksandr Sokurov and Edwin Carels, 'The Solitary Voice: Interview with Aleksandr Sokurov', _Film Studies: An International Review_, no. 1, Spring 1999, p. 73.


2. Frederic Jameson, 'On Soviet Magic Realism, in _The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System_ (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), p. 87.


3. Ian Christie, 'Returning to Zero', _Sight and Sound_, vol 8 no. 4, April 1998, p. 17.


4. Aleksandr Sokurov, 'Death, the Banal Leveller (on Tarkovsky)', _Film Studies: An International Review_, no. 1, Spring 1999, p. 64.


5. Aleksandr Sokurov and John Hartl, Interview, _Seattle Post Intelligencer_, 2 February 2003 <>.


6. Sokurov and Carels, 'The Solitary Voice', p. 74.


7. Christie, 'Returning to Zero', p. 17.


8. Quoted in Ian Christie, 'The Civilizing Russian', _Sight and Sound_, vol. 13 no. 4, April 2003, p. 10.


9. See Sokurov and Carels, 'The Solitary Voice', pp. 74-75.


10. See Christie, 'The Civilizing Russian', p. 10.


11. See Aleksandr Sokurov and Aleksandra Tuchinskaya, 'Interview with Aleksandr Sokurov', trans. Anna Shoulgat <>.


12. See Aleksandr Sokurov and Kumi Sasaki, Interview, _Sputnik_ <>.


13. Christie, 'Returning to Zero', p. 16.


14. Ibid.


15. See Sokurov and Carels, 'The Solitary Voice', pp. 73-74.


16. See Aleksandr Sokurov and Aleksandra Tuchinskaya, Interview.


17. Aleksandr Sokurov and John Hartl, Interview.


18. See Mikhail Iampolski, 'Truth in the Flesh', _Film Studies: An International Review_, no. 1, Spring 1999, p. 70.



Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003



Dorota Ostrowska, 'Sokurov's _Russian Ark_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 32, October 2003 <>.



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