International title: Russian Ark
Info: I embedded the full movie with automatically translated English subtitles below.
Russkiy kovcheg is an experimental art movie about a mysterious man without memory who finds himself in St. Petersburg, Russia, during the late 19th century. There, he is guided by a French aristocrat, nicknamed “the European”, who shows him the Winter Palace of the Hermitage. The European has expansive knowledge of Russian history and informs the unknown man about the palace, the art exhibitions, and the people there – while none of the others notice the unknown man.
WHAT I LIKE
The basic concept of Russkiy kovcheg is that of a period drama with a stunning scenery. The movie’s technically remarkable because the whole film was shot in one take. Thus, the movie resembles a guided museum tour that captures the atmosphere of the Hermitage. Also, the use of extras is simply amazing: at times there are several hundred extras on screen who interact with each other. Consequently, some scenes are impressive to watch, especially in the latter half, when the unknown man visits a dance hall with a full-blown orchestra and several dozens of extras dancing. Here, the timing and choreography are marvelous, and the fluid camera movement together with the hauntingly beautiful scenery make for some memorable and dream-like moments.
WHAT I DON’T LIKE
Even though the costumes are well-made, and the Hermitage makes for a wonderful scenery, the camera work also has its flaws. There are numerous transitions and dark passages in which the viewers ultimately see nothing, especially in the beginning. In these scenes, the one-take technique doesn’t add anything to the content or structure of the narrative. In addition, there are weirdly placed dolly zooms, often when the European goes through a corridor, that are noticeable and distracting. Also, it is apparent that in static moments, the camera is constantly being re-adjusted for better framing, especially in scarcely lit environments or when the European goes through doors. Lastly, while no inherent drawback, the movie does require at least basic knowledge of Russian history, otherwise the singular events will not make sense to the viewer, especially the juxtaposition of what happened in the past and the characters’ comments (e.g., about the war or specific aristocrats). Here, the movie does nothing to at least partially explain the context.
Russkiy kovcheg (international title: Russian Ark) is a period drama about an unknown man who finds himself roaming the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the late 19th century, while being invisible to others. The movie is an impressive work of art and, as of 2020, still one of the longest movies shot in one continuous take. The scenery of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg is hauntingly beautiful and the well-choreographed moments with hundreds of actors are simply stunning to watch. In its best moments, Russkiy kovcheg is very much like a beautiful dream come to live. However, the movie nearly completely lacks narrative structure and the camera work has its flaws in the more somber moments (e.g., distracting zooms, low lighting). Ultimately, while still being a technical achievement, viewers looking for a plot and without knowledge of Russian history will be left in the dark.
– Rumored to have about 2000 actors on set during shooting. However, in interviews, director Aleksandr Sokurov refused to confirm that number or even the final production cost.
– Shot in a single take in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, on December 23, 2001. The first three attempts failed because of technical issues; the fourth attempt was successful.
– The movie was heavily digitally altered: there are over 1,500 digital visual effects, e.g., object removals, compositions, picture stabilizations, selective color-corrections, and digitally added focus changes.
– The digital cameras used an external hard drive disk to save the uncompressed video information. So, the hard drive always had to be carried behind the camera man during shooting.
– The European is loosely based on the French aristocrat Marquis de Custine, who wrote an extremely unflattering book about life in Russia in 1839 (“La Russie en 1839“).