Art’s Fading Sway: Russian Ark by Aleksandr Sokurov

I have often fallen asleep in small theatres. It is an embarrassing thing to have happen during one-man shows, and I am certain that at least one actor, a man whose work I have enjoyed on many occasions and whom I admire, saw me sleeping during his one-man show.

I dropped off right in the middle of the performance for about fifteen minutes, third row of maybe ten, centre, and for the rest of the time I felt the reverse of what I should have felt: I felt him gazing at me. Had he seen? Was he watching to see if I looked bored? If I was going to fall asleep again? It was a small community theatre, so right after the performance he was waiting in the lobby to greet everyone. I stepped into that room full of tension, and my girlfriend prolonged my distress by asking to linger and look at the displays for upcoming shows. All I could do was stand across from him and feel his presence pushing ever more into mine.


For a long time I thought something like this was beyond the reach of film. Instead of pursuing the kind of heat you can feel in the theatre, film had gone a different direction: it had gone montage. I cannot overstate what a happy decision this was for film. Understanding montage meant that, as an art, film could finally stop being utter crap. Film could now be edited, it could tell stories, it could make a credible attempt at convincing you it imitated reality. It was released from the indignity of being a faddish technological spectacle destined to fade from the public’s imagination. It could compete with novels to be the preferred middle-class entertainment.


But in gaining montage film gave up the heat of spectacle. Film could be sharpened, but it would be a knife, not broken glass. Montage, like any kind of editing, encourages you to step into cliché. The very best films fight to exceed these limitations, and the very most average—the Hollywood blockbusters—luxuriate in cliché like pigs in their own filth. If you watch very, very many Hollywood blockbusters, which I once did over the course of two years as a forced spectator on South American buses, you will enter into an intimate relationship with film’s clichés. You will see how these clichés make each film into a porous copy of every other one.


Perhaps the most obvious, powerful, and daring way to break from the sameness imposed by montage is to shoot very, very long takes. This requires a great deal more forethought on your part. It limits your ability to edit, and it makes it much more likely that some lifelike mistake will slip in to your work. The long take is such a potent force for cinematic innovation, in fact, that if you wanted to be all-but-assured of injecting these elements into your film, you could do something absolutely without precedent: you could make a ninety-six minute film composed of just one shot. This would be a venture requiring a quantity of madness, since you’d be depriving yourself of the chance to edit the film, roughly like asking a novelist to write a book all in one nightmare-long session. You would also be exposing yourself to the risk that some garish blunder introduced in the ninetieth minute would undo all your work. You would essentially be walking the world’s longest tightrope. But if you could pull it off, it would be like making some bizarre, never-before-seen particle exist for a few moments in a supercollider.


This is exactly what Aleksandr Sokurov did when he made Russian Ark, a film that’s just one take, a longer take than any in the history of cinema. This is barbarism, a return to film’s Pleistocene beginnings. Ninety-six minutes without a single cut. Most films require hundreds of hours of material, caverns of data that are then labouriously sliced and arranged into ninety minute stories. Post-production editing is where film acquires its grammar, goes from being an assemblage of sounds into a language. But Russian Ark does not have any of this. To compensate for his self-imposed aphasia, Sokurov took unprecedented control over everything around his camera. He traced for it a two-kilometre path through Russia’s most majestic museum, and then he made legions of actors practice along that path for months. He took utmost care that every tiny detail that his camera might encounter was as controlled and accounted for as the space in a mother’s womb.


Somewhere in this mad endeavour Aleksandr Sokurov endowed the film with something it never expected to have: Walter Benjamin’s aura of the original. Here’s what Benjamin says about aura:


Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at close range in an image, or, better, in a facsimile, a reproduction. And the reproduction, as offered by illustrated magazines and newsreels, differs unmistakably from the image. Uniqueness and permanence are as closely entwined in the latter as are transitoriness and repeatability in the former. The stripping of the veil from the object, the destruction of the aura, is the signature of a perception whose ‘sense for all that is the same in the world’ has so increased that, by means of reproduction, it extracts sameness even from what is unique. Thus is manifested in the field of perception what in the theoretical sphere is noticeable in the increasing significance of statistics. The alignment of reality with the masses and of the masses with reality is a process of immeasurable importance for both thinking and perception.


One cannot doubt Benjamin here. The right to hold reproductions in our hands has become an unquestioned part of life, our ability to make copies at will is now a basic part of technological literacy. Benjamin was writing about the effects that photography would have on our sense of the original, but, even more than photography, film has no original, it is just an endless string of reproductions tracing back in on themselves, hours upon hours of images that editors make into a story. It is by necessity a more collective effort than any other art. The apparatus required to create one has grown to the point that we now routinely see films backed by hundreds of millions of dollars spewed like oil atop derricks from enormous, multi-national corporate entities. The vision of reality claimed by such films has become a mass vision of reality. Anyone doubting the Hollywood blockbuster’s ability to ‘extract sameness’ from the uniqueness of life should have a look at the statistically informed depictions of our world that are released into theatres every summer. ‘The alignment of reality with the masses.’ Indeed. Their dictate is not make it new; it is make it same, for same is safe, same packs multiplexes, same earns a good rate of return. Lacking any trace of the unforeseen, such films have no aura, could not possibly have it, because they are explicitly, implacably engineered to give us the experience that we expect to have.


But Sokurov’s film is the opposite. Its very nature guarantees that it will show us something unique in the history of cinema. It has an original. But will it be any good? Will it speak nonsense to us, or will it tell us something worth hearing?


Aleksandr Sokurov had the Hermitage Museum at his disposal for precisely one day in which he had to film Russian Ark. There was time enough for three tries. The first two were deemed failures and broken off before they could be completed, and the third try was subsequently released as the film Russian Ark. Did they get it right on the third try? It is the very same reason that makes this question nonsense that ensures Russian Ark contains the aura.


We begin shrouded in the black of death. Sokurov, who is doing the narration behind journeyman Tilman Büttner’s Steadicam, says there was an accident, or an explosion, something—he doesn’t know where he is or how he got there. Were this a typical film, the camera’s blackness would now dissolve in to reveal the anxious eyes of loved ones looking down at us on a hospital gurney, but instead the blackness gives way to a snowscape in which we find sumptuously dressed women and their men. They look like they’ve come out of the nineteenth century. They are entering a grand building.


It is not immediately apparent that we’re in a point of view shot, because no one is reacting to us being here. There’s no sense that anyone can ‘see’ the camera, which is usually how we viewers figure out we’re in a POV shot. This feeling of looking through the camera would normally give us the convincing sensation of being in the film, but Russian Ark feels different; the subtly discomfiting weirdness estranges us at the same time as we’re drawn in. We only know that we’re seeing through the camera because of Sokurov’s running monologue, which resides somewhere between nervous babbling and the stream of thoughts in his head. Sokurov wonders, ‘Is all this being staged for me? Am I to play a role? What kind of play is this?’ It’s an interesting question, because it’s one we would never ask ourselves. We always know just where we are and what we’re supposed to be doing in any given circumstance (even if what we’re supposed to be doing is being befuddled) for the simple reason that we’re the ones responsible for ending up wherever we find ourselves. But Sokurov is completely disoriented, he doesn’t even know if he’s alive or dead. It is an alienating, confusing thing. It reminds us that films are generally about people knowing just what role to play, about us watching them play that role. Sokurov’s confusion pulls us into his search for a role.


Essentially what we’re seeing here is a director playing a spectator within his own film, and this is why the film works. What else could a camera do for ninety-six minutes but wander and observe? Cameras are, by definition, unblinking eyeballs. They don’t have hands to grab things with, they don’t have mouths for blabbering and commanding people. All they’re capable of is observing. So it makes sense that Sokurov’s film is about him wondering and wandering. The only other way Russian Ark could possibly have held together would have been if Sokurov had made himself a noir detective, because detectives are essentially spectators in another person’s world—at least until the moment they solve the crime. But Sokurov’s solution is better because a noir pulls in to a final pit of certainty, but Russian Ark is blessed with an intriguing air of continual expansion. It has no plot, its only movement is to continually broaden this spectacle that Sokurov is walking through. It’s like watching a series of lightly absurdist, cunningly interlinked short plays in which you are circuiting the stage. Sokurov brings up theatre continually throughout the film. Early on he declares, ‘Russia is like a theatre.’ In one of the film’s most remarkable set pieces he walks through a creepy backstage right out of Dante’s ninth circle, with theatre-rats tending the infernal machines that create artifice onstage. Sokurov is damning us to remember: film is nothing but images on a screen, theatre is people.


It’s a bit of an irony, but if you watch enough theatre you begin to realise that the acting just doesn’t feel as real as it does in film. This is simply a fact of the medium’s limitations. People in a play need to project their role all the way to the cheap seats, so they use exaggerated gestures, and they yell so loud that you can see the spit fly from their mouth in a lustrous spray. Actors need at least a few minutes to slip into character, and we need a few minutes to suspend our disbelief, so the first scenes of a play always feel stilted. And there’s no getting around the fact that a theatre’s sets are stylised representations. Film can overcome all this. Directors can build sets as realistic as their budgets will allow. They can film take after take until the actors really are living their roles, and they can keep cutting and editing until any sense of artificiality has been sewn right shut. Film also leverages the fact that most of us have seen thousands upon thousands of hours of video, much of it news footage of ostensibly ‘real’ things, so we’re already conditioned to accept video as reality in a way that we never would accept theatrical performances.


Russian Ark upends this. Like any theatrical actor, Sokurov requires the first few minutes of the film to slip into character. These are the confused first minutes when he keeps muttering about his role in the film. We acclimatise to the film’s unfamiliar rhythms with Sokurov, like an audience warming up with its players. We can feel the aura getting started. It’s the thrill of not quite knowing what’s intended and what’s not that makes it feel real. And so Russian Ark forces us to confront the question: in your thirst for reality, do you prefer the slick, manufactured kind that feature films offer, or the clumsy, aura-laden reality of theatre?


Sokurov has hardly gotten his wits about him when he meets the Marquis de Custine, an authentic nineteenth century aristocrat who knows exactly as much about what he’s doing here as does Sokurov. They decide to wander together, although their alliance remains a loose one. Sokurov seems to be the saturnine of the pair, trudging along, observing, and making pithy Slavic remarks. The Marquis is aloof and mercurial, the kind of aging vanity who will be confiding in you one moment and then rushing off to pick up the handkerchief of a willowy young woman. He actually did visit Russia in 1839, he even wrote a well-received travelogue about it. He judged Russia rather harshly, calling it a copy of European civilisation. It seems he struck an exposed nerve, what with Tolstoy later mocking the feckless Russian nobles for trying to out-French the French. The Marquis even gets Sokurov to admit that his beloved Hermitage they’re walking through is a knock-off of the Vatican. He says rather insultingly, ‘Are you interested in beauty or just its representation?’


It’s a potent question for a filmmaker to pose to himself. Can film really offer us beauty, and not merely the representation of beauty? How does it slip off a film’s surface to exist within us?


The film suggests an answer when Sokurov and the Marquis come upon a blind woman right around minute thirty. She’s admiring the art in the Hermitage, and one immediately wonders what good a palace of visual art is to her. Clearly she’s not here for the representation of beauty, she is here for that other thing, call it the aura. The Marquis makes friends with her, Sokurov observes as she declares that she wants to show him Rubens’ The Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee. He plays a cruel trick on her. First he tells her that the painting is not in the gallery, and then, after walking up to it and admiring it himself, he announces that he has found it. But instead of showing the woman the painting he points her in the opposite direction, so she is facing a completely different painting. The trusting woman smiles and basks in what she thinks is the Rubens. What does she see in this moment? And am I so wrong for thinking that a few minutes later, when the Marquis kneels down before a portrait of Peter and Paul and crosses himself with religious fervor, that he is just as blind to that painting as art? Standing next to him is a young modern man knowing nothing of religion who tells the Marquis that he looks at Peter and Paul because he ‘likes them.’ This slight, poetic young man ventures to tell the Marquis that one day all men will become like them, and the Marquis seethes back: ‘How can you know what will become of men if you have not read the scriptures?’ He makes as if to strike the young man, who shrinks in terror.


Could the difference between these men’s approach to art be more stark? The Marquis is a man of his times, that is to say, he insults Wagner, he praises the Vatican as the most beautiful structure on Earth. The modern young man carries no religious affiliation, for him art can be disconnected from God. It carries its own light—whereas, when the Marquis looks at the painting, the devotion he feels comes from the reflected light of the scriptures. We begin to see now why he played that cruel trick on the blind woman, why he bodily threatens this young man. His concept of art is bounded by a sense of representation, the aura for him is not inherent in the work, it is God. We no longer understand God as the Marquis does, what has taken its place is the Original. We all now stand in relation to art as the blind woman does, as Sokurov stands in relation to the film through which he wanders with those same blind eyes. Beauty for Sokurov, for the woman, for us, is not representation, it does not come about with a devout stare at art, it is not adoration of mystery. Beauty is a lunge toward what is. If Sokurov sees beauty at all, he sees it as the misty, subliming horizon toward which he longingly stares at the end of the movie, when, looking through a window at the limits of his ark—the only frame through which he stares in the whole film—he realises that he is but a pearl adrift on a vast ocean.


*  *  *


Shortly after the incident with the Rubens, Sokurov snakes us back down to earth. He and the Marquis come upon a door—it looks just like any other door, but somehow Sokurov knows it’s forbidden. He tries to warn the Marquis off, but the stubborn man steps through. It is a dark, cavernous room that he steps into, littered with the remnants of thousands of frames, all without the paintings that give them being. The Marquis is called forth by a burly, hammering shadow from the darkest days of Stalingrad who is building old frames into coffins. All at once the sacredness that the Marquis has always found in art is made all too concrete, while at the same time we see that Sokurov has, literally, broken the frame entirely, has revealed it as a home for dead matter. It is something he wants nothing of. His film holds no dead representations. It is light and life. He and the Marquis flee in horror.


And this is the weirdest thing about this bizarre scene that occurs in the exact chronological centre of Russian Ark: the coffin-maker accuses the Marquis of stepping on the corpses of dead men, corpses that we do not see but that the man sees quite well. The movie has inverted itself, our belief that we alone have crept as ghosts through the Hermitage is ruptured just as decisively as is the frame of the film. This man is a ghost, and he sees other ghosts around him. Or—is he just mad with hunger and terror? Either way, Sokurov has made us doubt our eyes. Unable to believe what we see, we must concern ourselves not with representations but with truths.


The stage is set for the final breaking of the frame and the emergence of Russian Ark’s full aura. Soon after the scene with the coffin-maker, Sokurov and his friend walk into the middle of an enormous imperial reception, complete with palace guards, a captive audience of hundreds, and royalty. It is something out of a gigantic nineteenth century canvas, as though they have finally entered that plane they have long lingered at the margins of. Sokurov treats this scene like a theatre with its stage: there are hundreds of spectators standing on the sidelines and watching the unfolding of a drama between Tsar Nicholas I and the Shah of Iran’s grandson. The event is as scripted as any performance, with all the dignitaries acting out roles. And indeed, if this is a play, then it is one that the aristocratic audience has seen many times before, that era’s equivalent of the re-run we’ve grow contemptuous of through familiarity: after wandering through the action for a couple of minutes, Sokurov turns his attentions to the wearied bystanders, who seem more interested in gossip and one another’s gowns and epaulettes than the hours of imperial pomp that are in store for them. Still some do watch—hoping for what? For the shocking, reality-inducing misstep that I have hoped to see for fifty some minutes. A newsworthy accident, something to prove that the world before them is real. Something not so horrible and so deadly to the fabric of reality as the towers’ fall, but more than just a gaffe that can be sewn back into the fabric from which it came—something between, like art, which seeks not to gouge but to push, so that we can have enough room to look past the frame of our world and see it anew.


This scene, the most scripted in the film, is also the one where the aura is most potent. For the past hour Sokurov has been conditioning us to be unsure of when the actors in this film can see him and when they cannot. There’s no logic to it—some of the characters see Sokurov and the Marquis and some don’t. At times it even happens that someone who couldn’t originally see them suddenly does. This unreliability is one thing among crowds in public spaces. But now, at the acme of the Russian Empire and amidst a wobbly balance between the vanities of two civilisations, Sokurov and the Marquis are wandering through with their mouths open. The immaculate and lavish extras are constantly glancing into the camera, and I am staring back, I am looking hard to see if they see me. The only comparable sensation is the eerie, belated exchange that takes place when you look at a picture you’ve taken, and there on the sidelines is someone’s small, forgotten face frowning into your lens. Or rather, it’s like when seeing a play at a small theatre, the actors and I are so tightly together that I can plausibly believe that they can feel my individual gaze on them. In the moment they are both actors and regular persons of the kind I’d meet on the street, and I am—what? At times they stare into my eyes and I am thrown all out of balance: do I stare back as per my right as paid spectator, or do I succumb to the scummy feeling of the discovered voyeur and look away? When I wondered if that actor saw me sleeping during his performance, we entered into a rudimentary sort of relationship. You can have this relationship with a theatrical performance. You can even have it with a painting—remember how they say the Mona Lisa’s eyes follow you? Well, forget that. I’ve passed a few intense minutes when I’ve felt Rothkos looking at me. But Russian Arkis the only time in memory that I have felt it with a film. Right here in Tsar Nicholas I’s mammoth reception chamber I am having it with these scores of Russians standing in nice, tidy lines, as their gaze drifts from their tsar into Sokurov’s camera—that is, onto me. Am I foolish for wanting to look down into my lap? Or am I seeing now that Sokurov is not merely concerned with the representation of beauty? Have I become that mistake that mars their script, have I become the film’s proof of reality to itself?


The very distracted longevity of these spectators’ gaze onto their tsar brings the realisation that we look at nothing so forcefully as we do our screens—they hold our attention more than any work of art that we will ever come to adore. We stare because we believe them to show us life, truth, reality—but then what does the work of art show us, the work that, if we are lucky, we will spend perhaps half an hour with amidst the jostling, demeaning distractions of a museum? These screens mutely accept the kind of unrelenting gaze that would reduce any of us to shudders. They are receptacles filled with the hackwork of a thousand small hands, whereas paintings, which are by definition singular and uncopyable, are urns that contain the remains of one human’s sight. There is so much gazing in this film that it makes one ask, what did we spend all our time looking at before the invention of screens? How did we begin to see art differently once we were sure we could see it in a book, how did men begin to see women once we had the knowledge we could see as many voluptuously naked ones as we wanted on Google? An era of screens gives us so much more to gaze at that spectacle loses its authority to command our attention—we can jump from spectacle to spectacle to spectacle in a night on Twitter. So what has taken spectacle’s place, for surely something still commands our rapt attention. Russian Ark is asking us to consider what has been deemed worth looking at over time and how that has changed. The screen and the painting gives us opposites, but Sokurov will not compromise with them, he collapses it by making us gaze at his film as though it’s both cinematic and painterly. It all flies together in this scene in which the tsar apologises to the shah.


The film concludes with an enormous imperial ball complete with a live orchestra playing waltzes, with dancers, men propositioning women, the latter deciding with whom to dance. It is performance stacked upon performance to the rafters! Sokurov is filming, the orchestra is playing, people are dancing that most theatrical of dances, and who can say if anyone is any longer acting for the camera, if they would have played these roles any differently had Sokurov not been there to record them doing so. This culminating spectacle feels right, and it is here that the Marquis tells Sokurov that he has decided to stay. But what does that mean? The Marquis conveys his wish to stand still instead of continuing ‘forward’ with Sokurov. But what precisely does that leave his status as? What existence can anything in this film have once Sokurov’s camera stops looking at it?


The ball ends, Sokurov exits along with hundreds of extras—it looks precisely like the aftermath of a successful play, or a gala film premiere. We have all known this moment when, artifice ending, we can still feel within our skins the lingering effects of the representations we have just witnessed; perhaps there is a tear or two on our cheeks, we feel art’s fading sway as we begin to step back in to the unmediated, unnarrated, unedited, accustomed life. The aura, one knows in these moments, is an effect of art, as are many of the emotions we are destined to feel in lives that are, it must be admitted, much less full of drama, ecstasy, pain, discovery, and horror than the art to which we regularly expose ourselves. There is a term for when we experience the aura in our own lives, it is called the uncanny. We reserve it for those moments when life makes a mistake, that is, when it begins to take on the qualities that Sokurov has found expression for in his film. Russian Ark concludes with a beautiful plunge backwards as Sokurov skims down the middle of the departing crowd, letting us briefly examine the faces of people one last time as they make that switch from life’s representation to simple life. Although we remain within the Hermitage, as always, there is a sense of stepping outside, of leaving the theatre, and at long last Sokurov finds the perimeter of his mammoth, ninety-six minute shot. He steps up to a window through which a cold mist draws, he looks out and sees a dark, stormy, frigid ocean. It looks as though the polar cap is peacefully releasing itself up into space. He tells us there is no end. It is a final reminder of the artificiality of any story, of the fact that we are condemned to gaze in search of completion, of aura, of art and meaning—of beauty. And that to do so we must assume roles we are ill-fit to play, but that to do otherwise would not be human. 



is the co-author of The End of Oulipo? (with Lauren Elkin; Zero Books, 2013). His writing has appeared recently in Music & Literature, Drunken Boat, and The Point. His criticism appears frequently in the Times Literary Supplement, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Washington Post.



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