By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
UP TILL NOW, RUSSIAN ARKHAS BEEN TECHNIcally fascinating, but essentially cold and didactic. Now, energized by his encounter with fine art, the Marquis starts rhapsodizing over the cultural sophistication of the Russian czars. Oh, they were beasts, he says, but what good taste! (He would naturally think so: The Romanov court famously aped the French court in fashion and etiquette.) Then, in a fit of idle curiosity, he opens a door, only to find a hulk of a workingman — a survivor of Germany's 900-day siege of Leningrad (Soviet-speak for St. Petersburg), in which as many as a million Russians succumbed to hunger and disease — talking of death and destruction. But the Marquis doesn't want to hear about it. He slams the door shut and runs off to another building to join in a series of masques, official ceremonies and, finally, a gigantic, brilliantly photographed ball that, according to the press notes, depicts the last Great Royal Ball ever held in the Winter Palace, in 1913. Transfixed by the high life of the royal court, the Marquis doesn't want to hear about the struggles of the Russian masses.
But what, in the end, does Sokurov want to tell us about them? Between the big fancy-dress scenes, there are smaller, more nostalgic moments. After a small group of lovely girls skip down a hall dressed as angels, one goes in to sit with her father, Emperor Nicholas II, and mother, Empress Alexandra, and is addressed as Anastasia. Sokurov is invoking one of the great myths of White Russia, that of the missing princess who escaped the Bolshevik firing squad. Russian Ark is dallying with reaction here, and the flirtation persists right up to the film's end, which coincides with the end of the ball. As many hundreds of noble and military guests make their way down decorous, baroque-neoclassical halls to the huge main staircase, the camera walks among this politely surging mass of polished humanity and, in a last bravura flourish, turns and faces them head-on at the door and watches as they pass behind and into the street.
Sokurov displays enormous ambivalence throughout these scenes of court life. While the Marquis runs off to join in the ball — and, indeed, on many occasions when the Marquis runs off — the director's voice warns him to hold back. During the ball, the Marquis, as he waltzes, can't even hear the director's voice as he mourns the passing of so many lives, though not the end of this way of life. As he stands and watches the partygoers exit to their doom, it's with a certain detachment.
The film has a secret code, and the code book is V.I. Pudovkin's 1927 Bolshevik classic The End of St. Petersburg. As dedicated to expressive editing as Sokurov is to long, long takes, Pudovkin ended his film on these very steps, with a revolutionary woman stumbling up the stairs, searching for her husband. Sokurov is connecting one piece of forgotten history with another that may soon be obliterated from memory. It's a big job, but someone had to do it.
RUSSIAN ARK | Directed by ALEXANDER SOKUROV | Written by BORIS KHAIMSKY, ANATOLI NIKIFOROV, SVETLANA PROSKURINA and SOKUROV | Produced by ANDREI DERYABIN, JENS MEUER and KARSTEN STÖTER | Released by Wellspring Media | At the Nuart
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