It took Alexander Sokurov two years to prepare his film tribute to St Petersburg's Hermitage museum, once home to Catherine the Great and backdrop to the start of the Russian revolution. But it took him just an hour and a half to shoot it, in a single take. Jonathan Jones on the making of a remarkable movie
'Reception Hall. Small Hermitage', original oil painting by E. Tabachnik. Currently on display at the Museum of European Art in Clarence, New York. The work was inspired by the artist's visits to the Hermitage in his student days.
Alexander Sokurov has a surprisingly ornate clock in his otherwise cool and restrained St. Petersburg flat. It chimes as I study a photograph on the wall of him with Solzhenitsyn, and reminds me of other elaborate time-keeping devices in this city.
Of the cannon that fired at noon as I was sitting in a hushed reception room behind the scenes at the Hermitage, waiting to meet the museum's director. Of the Peacock Clock inside the Small Hermitage, an ornate contraption constructed in the 1760s by the English jeweller James Coxe in the form of a tree upon which a gilded clockwork peacock perches and spreads its tail. And of the clock in the small dining room of the Winter Palace, frozen at 2.10, the time the provisional government was arrested in this room on the night of November 7 1917, when the Bolsheviks stormed the building in the decisive act of the Russian Revolution.
At that moment a whole history ceased. The history of 18th- and 19th-century Russia encapsulated by the Hermitage--from Peter the Great's foundation of his new capital in 1703 to the excesses of the 19th-century Tsars--came to an end, just as the history of St Petersburg as a capital came to an end. The Soviets transferred the seat of government to Moscow. All the clocks stopped.
Or perhaps not.
"Time never stops," Sokurov says. "The epoch of Peter the Great hasn't stopped yet. You can always imagine you are in this time because the branch of this time is still growing. The world, in my imagination, is like a tree. We are all cells in that tree and are moving along it. We are much closer to our past than Englishmen are to Victorian times. Our past hasn't become past yet--the main problem of this country is that we don't know when it will become past."
The light is low in Sokurov's study; the acclaimed director of Mother and Son (1996), Moloch (1999) and now his stunning celebration of the Hermitage museum, Russian Ark, recently had an eye operation. 'Russian Ark' begins in darkness. The voice of the invisible narrator--Sokurov's voice--has no idea where or when he is, but remembers an accident, a catastrophe. Then suddenly he sees officers and ladies in 19th-century dress, and the camera that represents him is off on its snaking journey, following these would-be Tsarist revellers into the Hermitage, getting lost, hooking up with a cynical Frenchman from the Romantic era who for the rest of the film acts as his and our psychopomp, travelling, swooping, running, stumbling from room to room, seeing history's weight and frivolity--Catherine the Great running off to piss, a terrifying hint of the siege of Leningrad--and always, like time in Sokurov's image, continuing.
'Russian Ark' was made in a single hour-and-a-half-long shot, unedited. It took that hour and a half to film (after two years of preparation) and takes the same time to watch. It is the first film to be made in this way, exploiting digital technology not to bend reality but to do justice to it--no film on celluloid could continue unbroken for this amount of time.
With its Steadicam journey through the Hermitage's astonishing interiors--filmed by German cameraman Tilman Büttner, and the longest-ever steadicam shot--'Russian Ark' is something unexpected. Everyone's first, mounting reaction to Sokurov's film is suspense; a huge cast, complex crowd scenes and intricate dialogue--what if someone coughed or fell over?
But perhaps what is most amazing is that Sokurov got permission to film at the Hermitage at all - and not simply permission, but the assistance of the museum's curators and staff in planning and executing the film. Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the museum, appears in it as himself, having a conversation with his dead father, who was also the director of the museum, and with another deceased director, Iosef Orbeli, responsible for saving the museum's treasures during the three-year siege of Leningrad.
Piotrovsky himself is leading me, quite fast, along the route taken by Sokurov's camera. We begin behind the scenes, in the theatre designed for Catherine the Great by her neoclassical architect Giacomo Quarenghi and modelled on Palladio's Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza in Italy. "We have had some bad experiences with feature films," says Piotrovsky as we burst out of the theatre into the museum proper, out of subdued light into a bright, sunlit public space where it seems the entire population of St Petersburg has come to spend Saturday morning.
Never having visited the museum before, as disorientated as Sokurov's invisible time traveller, I follow Piotrovsky past old and young, so many faces, through rooms with gilded mouldings, mosaics, balconies, vistas.
Bad experiences with feature films. Some extraordinary ones, too. Long before Piotrovsky's time (and before his father's), Sergei Eisenstein shot the storming of the Winter Palace, part of the Hermitage complex, on location in October, his dramatised account of the revolution, commissioned for the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik seizure of power.
In Eisenstein's film, the Peacock Clock--the same one made by a brilliant English designer in the 18th century, bought by Catherine the Great's intimate Grigorii Potemkin, and today still proudly in working order--appears as a historical absurdity.
Objects that were once considered symols of decadence have become national treasures. In the the Hall of St George, Mikhail Piotrovsky shows me the newly restored twin-headed eagle, symbol of Tsarist Russia, from the top of the Winter Palace. It is reverently displayed and enraptures the museum's Russian visitors. How different from its representation by the revolutionary avant garde 80-odd years ago.
Sever its long-necked head
With a single stroke!"
........................wrote the poet Mayakovsky.
Concert in the Hermitage. An oil painting by Edward Tabachnik from Toronto, one of six works from his series "The Halls of Hermitage" currently on display at the Museum of European Art in Clarence.
Today, explains Piotrovsky, people come to the Hermitage to see and celebrate the lost world of 18th- and 19th-century Russia. In 'Russian Ark', the events of 1917 are hinted at as a looming tragedy; there is sympathy for the doomed royal family. It's a far cry from Eisenstein, let alone his more politically orthodox rival, Pudovkin, whose own film restaging of the revolution is called, with consummate brutality, 'The End of St Petersburg'.
You can't help thinking about these films in the context of 'Russian Ark', and not only because they share a location. In the history of Russian cinema, Alexander Sokurov's decision to make a film in a single shot, in real time, and with absolutely no editing seems particularly pregnant.
Editing is what Russian avant garde cinema of the 1920s is famous for, what Eisenstein, Pudovkin and their contemporaries contributed to cinema; not just the haphazard scissors-and-paste techniques cobbled together by Hollywood custom, but something altogether more systematic: montage, the dazzling juxtaposition of images to convey meaning - in Eisenstein's hands a great modernist aesthetic, but also a mode of manipulation and propaganda.
With editing, whether in the films of the Soviet avant garde or in the fictive patchwork of today's mainstream cinema, reality is remade in the cutting room; film bends time, routinely distorts experience.
In Sokurov's 'Russian Ark', nothing is cut, nothing is moved, nothing is reinvented or added at the whim of the all-powerful director. What we see is a direct record of what the camera saw on its hour-and-a-half journey through the Hermitage. This allows time, experience, to flow unedited and complex on screen: it's not just a technical but an artistic, even philosophical achievement.
It becomes clear that Sokurov is tired of talking about his film as a technical masterstroke; the method of shooting "is only one of the tools", he says, pained by having to go through it again. "This film is not contradicting anything," he says. "If it were, it would mean it was revolutionary." In fact, the strangeness of 'Russian Ark', its connoisseurship of time, is an accurate description of what it feels like to visit the Hermitage.
All great old museums are places where time stretches, floats, accumulates dust, even has an odour (in Sokurov's film, people sniff paintings). You lose yourself, cut free from linear time into something more oceanic. The Hermitage has the same historical thickness that all museums have, but to an infinitely more fermented degree.
The location of the Hermitage is peculiarly disassociated from the everyday. The Winter Palace, built by the 18th-century Baroque genius Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli and restored extravagantly to his designs after the fire of 1837, together with the Small Hermitage that Catherine the Great created as her personal retreat, the Large Hermitage that she built to house her art collection, and the 19th-century New Hermitage that is the only purpose-designed public gallery within the complex, stand along the bank of the river Neva.
So you find yourself in a drawing room staggering beneath green malachite pilasters and a gilded ceiling, and looking out at a sea of ice, the frozen river; and on the ice, people are walking, skating, fishing. This is a charming fantasy of Russia, like the enormous sled carved in the shape of St George and the Dragon that you came across in some room in the museum, you can't remember which.
"It destroys your mind," an employee tells me. Working here, she says, disfigures your sense of reality, alienates you from life outside. If the Hermitage seems to the casual visitor to inhabit a different time, I am told that it is an even more intense world for the people who work here. They love it--"Nobody leaves"--and become part of it.
The Hermitage has its own school where children can learn archaeology and art history from the age of five, preselected for curatorial lives like gymnasts or violinists; many, after university, come back to work here. "Some start as cleaners and then by steps become curators. Two vice-directors began here as labourers, moving things from one place to another."
And then there is the collection. Russia's first ambitious art collector was Catherine the Great, the German princess who bumped off her husband to become empress and styled herself the Minerva of the European Enlightenment, commissioning Jean-Antoine Houdon's statue of Voltaire, inviting Diderot to St Petersburg, and then buying his library and paying him as its curator. It is truly impressive how much of the Hermitage's fine art collection can be attributed directly to Catherine, her lovers and her agents.
The Hermitage has perhaps the best collection of Rembrandts in the world--'The Return of the Prodigal Son' and 'The Descent from the Cross' are among many bought by Catherine; she bought Tintoretto's Birth of St John the Baptist and Giorgione's Judith; as a patron of the Enlightenment, she bought contemporary art from the leading enlightened nations, France and Britain. Paintings by Watteau and Chardin have been here since her time. So have two paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby, ordered directly from the scientifically minded midlands artist's studio. So has some of the earliest and best Wedgwood.
You can go on for days like this. Everyone makes their own path through this immeasurable museum. This is what Sokurov does, and it is one of the reasons his film is so alive: it is not an attempt to show the whole of the Hermitage, but to follow one specific path, which happens to take in some of his favourite paintings. Only one--El Greco's St Peter and St Paul--was moved to place it on the route; the rest are as you find them.
"The painting in the Hermitage is so fundamental, it is beyond any discussion," says Sokurov. "When you say you prefer this one, it is a little bit shameful; but in fact I like Rembrandt very sincerely with all my heart and I love El Greco since my school years. I am a provincial man, and my first meeting with real paintings was in the Hermitage. Before that I saw lots of paintings by Rembrandt and El Greco in books."
Sokurov's film has a deliberately awkward sense of awe before paintings. Far from showing lovely, clean, perfectly lit shots of paintings, it treats them as difficult and stubborn. In fact, it seems to be an inquiry into how to experience great art.
As well as sniffing the paintings, people go so close as almost to touch them, and a blind visitor--in real life a gymnast called Tamara who lost her sight when she was 12--explains Van Dyck's Rest on the Flight into Egypt. Her casting seems to suggest that art is not only, or necessarily, visual; and Rembrandt, whose art the film stops for, or anyway circles around longest, is the painter who exemplifies this most profoundly.
Rejecting the meticulous realism of his Dutch contemporaries, Rembrandt painted in such a way as to suggest the inner life, consciousness; blindness is a recurring image in his paintings, and his dark, isolating, inner-lit portraits make us feel that we are looking at someone's soul. In his 'Danaë' (restored after it was attacked in the 1980s), you feel that the subject is reaching for something more than glittering gold.
Rembrandt makes us aware of what Sokurov says is the essence of painting. "When you meet the real painting, you meet a real creature. Rembrandt left part of his physical being in his painting--every time you come up to a painting, you feel part of this energy, this sense of something being alive."
As if to get close to this life distilled in paint, Sokurov films paintings from the side, in normal lighting, so that reflections--as they do--obscure one part of the picture and make the texture of its surface visible. And because he is interested in encounter rather than information, he lingers on just a few paintings; Rembrandts, a Rubens, a Van Dyck, a Tintoretto.
In front of El Greco's St Peter and St Paul, the French traveller abuses a young Russian for not knowing the scriptures. Sokurov loves the religion in old paintings; religiosity of some kind is fundamental to his concept of art. It's one of the reasons he prefers the art of the Old Masters to that of modernism.
"The banner of modern art says, 'I want to do this.' On the banner of classic art are the words, 'Everything from God.' They didn't put a crude religious meaning into it--it was simply a modesty. Historically, nothing has changed, and we could have the same banner now. Give me the name of any modern artist who could create something more avant-garde than Turner."
His dislike of modernism flavours the film and its route. After the Rembrandts, the Hermitage's most celebrated paintings are Matisse's Music and the Dance, expropriated from the great Shchukin collection after the revolution. But you won't see them in Russian Ark. "The main criterion in art is time. It seems to me that those artists who are considered modern classics are to be tested by time yet." A century is not nearly long enough.
Time again, time that wells up, time we drown in pleasurably. Sokurov is an unapologetic defender of the idea of the museum in its most--superficially--conservative sense. "Museums make culture stable. Museums make the chaos of art into a stable structure. Museums also remind modern artists that there was art before them so they should be modest."
One way of understanding him here--it's what he goes on to say--is by contrast with cinema. Cinema, although it has a history of more than a century (and St Petersburg itself is only 300 years old), seems to have no sense of history, of its own history. "Those unlimited things that cinema is doing with no sense of history is due to the absence of cinema museums," says Sokurov. He's saying this at a time when the Hollywood remake of Tarkovsky's Solaris is showing in St Petersburg.
'Russian Ark' is a film that celebrates high culture unequivocally. I tell him how British museums want to be part of a youthful, urban culture. His film, I say, seems pleasurably melancholic in its respect for the stillness of museums. "I don't think it is melancholia; it is a delicacy. Great paintings and statues are, so to say, scared of brightness and glare. They demand a very quiet attention towards them. Of course it is all the same for the paintings, but it demands silence. Flirting with youth is like flirting with Nazism, and you mustn't do this."
I ask Mikhail Piotrovsky about the conversation he has in the film with his father, who warns him about coming catastrophe. At first Piotrovsky says he doesn't know what this might mean. Then he says it means commercialism--the pressures the Hermitage is under to survive in a market economy. Sokurov, too, is fearful of commercialism; Soviet communism was no defence against this--in the 1920s and 30s the state sold major Hermitage treasures abroad.
Sokurov's title, 'Russian Ark', is an anxious one, implying a threatening disaster, a coming flood from which the Hermitage alone can protect high European culture. It is also an intervention in the endless debate--as old as the Hermitage--about Russian identity and Russia's place in Europe.
Russia didn't slavishly copy Europe, says the film, in the Hermitage; rather, it cherished high European art and culture, from Wedgwood to Voltaire, more passionately than the British or French themseves. In Alexander Sokurov's vision, Russia is a great interpreter and preserver of European high art, the last place where it is still respected and loved and protected.
Copyright 2003 by The Guardian (UK), March 28, 2003