Alexander Sokurov’s “Russian Ark” is a mesmerizing, flowing tour of Russia’s prized Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg that elegantly summarizes the last three centuries of Russian history. What makes “Russian Ark” such a triumph, however, is not its subject, but its style. The entire 96-minute-long trek through Russia’s past is composed of a single shot – making it the longest shot in the history of cinema.

Zac Peskowitz
Courtesy of Wellspring Media

The idea of constructing a film in a single shot is not a new one and in fact dates back to 1948 with Hitchcock’s thriller “Rope.” But the bulbous filmmaker had to cheat as his camera could only hold eight minutes of film. “Russian Ark” doesn’t need to cheat to maintain a single shot throughout its entire run-time thanks to the use of digital video instead of film.

“Russian Ark” was made possible by recent advances in digital video technology, specifically a breakthrough Sony high definition camera that has a picture quality equal to that of conventional film. The camera embodies the best of both worlds for Sokurov, as it combines high image quality with a long shooting time. While the technology used to create “Russian Ark” is indeed impressive, the real feat was organizing the event and, somehow, pulling it off without a hitch.

Sokurov and his crew were only allowed one day to film in the museum, so the cast and crew had to rehearse for months in order to get it perfect for the actual day of the shoot. Unfortunately, the first two attempts failed due to technical problems, but the third time was indeed the charm.

The choreography of Sokurov’s camera and the hundreds of actors is simply remarkable considering the slim margin of error they had to work with. Cinematographer Tillman Buttner breathlessly follows a 19th century French aristocrat through dozens of lavish rooms, pausing briefly to capture every moment of artistic brilliance of pre-Soviet history.

“Russian Ark” is one of those rare films that coalesces a virtuoso technical feat with a provocative look at the past – an ultimate amalgamation of style and substance. From a technical standpoint alone, “Russian Ark” is one of the most memorable cinematic events in years.

Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

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