Movie-lovers tend to lose their minds over audaciously long tracking shots. Up until a few years ago, these technical marvels were quite rare, limited by film-making technology. Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, in 1948, featured only 11 shots in its 80-minute running time, at the mercy of 10-minute film canisters, but its stage-like set made this feat less spectacular than the opening shot of Orson Welles' 1958 Touch of Evil, which, at only three-and-a-half minutes long — but ambitious in its choreography and narrative purpose — was considered for decades one of the most impressive examples of a long take.
Now, long takes are so commonplace from upstart filmmakers anxious to show-off their prowess that they're almost not even worth noting. In addition to the recently released World War I drama 1917, which appears to have only one conventional edit point within two hours, the last few years have also seen Gaspar Noe's druggy nightmare Climax, which includes a 42-minute long shot at its core; two movies from Hungarian director László Nemes — Son of Saul (2015) and Sunset (2018) — which are full of complex and intense long takes; Alejandro G. Iñárritu's Oscar-winning Birdman in 2014, which gives the illusion of having been filmed in one long continuous shot; Sebastian Schipper's thriller Victoria, which actually was shot in one continuous take; Shin'ichirô Ueda's Japanese zombie comedy One Cut of the Dead, which uses the gimmick twice to clever effect; the incredible sixth episode of Mike Flanagan's Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House; and many more, most within the last decade. It's a neat trick, at times, and sometimes both narratively and cinematically gratifying; but also sometimes needlessly self-conscious and favoring the feat over the substance.
As single-shot movies go, Russian Ark is a miracle. After four years of planning, director Alexander Sokurov had a window of merely 36 hours to move his crew into St. Petersberg's Winter Palace Hermitage Museum, set-up for his winding tour of three centuries of history involving nearly 2000 performers, and shoot their entire movie. His crew successfully completed their unbroken 90-minute shot on their fourth take and final chance, with dying batteries and fading daylight conspiring against them. That Russian Ark even exists is impressive; that it's also beguiling, wry and emotional is incredible.
I was worried that my shallow knowledge of Russian history might handicap my understanding of Russian Ark's references and themes, but Sokurov and Anatoli Nikiforov concocted a canny narrative involving two ghost-like observers, one a European from the 19th century (Sergei Dreiden) and the other a Russian (from the present?) voiced by Sokurov and through whose point-of-view the entire movie is seen. With these two guides, Russian Ark is part museum tour and part living history, as it wanders in and out of galleries and historical moments and back and forth throughout time. While Dreiden's European sniffily critiques Russian culture and inserts himself into the Palace's affairs, Sokurov's Russian is more humble and reverent, observing passively yet compelled to continue.
It's Sokurov the director, however, whose point-of-view transforms Russian Ark from an unusual day at the museum into an idiosyncratic, sometimes bitter, and ultimately powerful experience. While his hushed narration as The Russian recalls the whispered poetic voice-over of Tarkovsky's The Mirror, The European's relentless matter-of-fact belittling of Russian culture informs Russian Ark with a centuries-old grudge. With one foot in both Europe and Asia, Russia was never accepted as an equal by their western neighbors, and their profuse love for European culture went unrequited. With this narrative device, Sokurov is surely attempting to show that, despite this inferiority complex, Russian high society equaled the splendor and grandeur of their European counterparts up until the start of the 20th century. Even if Russia never produced painters and sculptors on the level of the French, Italians, Belgians or Dutch, their collection and protection of that art and the grand Russian building which houses it and the Russian society that was inspired by it, is its own worthy work of art. It's this 300 years of love for Europe which, as seen through Sakurov's ambitious metaphorical cinema, this Russian museum has preserved on a virtual ark as the flood of war and Revolution replaced Russia's sparkling romantic era with gloom, paranoia, and death.
The final shots of Russian Ark are a monumental testament to Sokurov's romantic view of pre-Communist Russian history, adding to the movie’s continually gliding, but never-too-polished, camerawork an almost unbearable weight of future nostalgia for the blithe ignorance of the oblivion lurking just beyond the end of an era.