Russian Ark: Conflict And Memory In Post-Modern Cinema

Through the contents of the image and the resources of montage, the cinema has at its disposal a whole arsenal of means whereby to impose its interpretation of an event on the spectator. (Bazin c2005:26)

In his article The Evolution of the Language of Cinema film theorist Andre Bazin argues that the misuse of montage, the continued overuse of cinematic techniques established by the Hollywood studio system (shot-reverse-shot), and the plastics of the image (set, lighting, make-up, costume and performance) distance realism from modern cinema. Bazin does admit montage is vital to making a film work explaining, ‘it was [Eisenstein’s] montage that gave birth to film as an art, setting it apart from mere animated photography, in short, creating a language’ (Bazin c2005:24) though further defines directors as falling into two distinct groups, those who ‘put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality’ (Bazin c2005:24) and Bazin’s preference is directed towards the latter.

Bazin writes manipulation of the image through different styles in cinematography ie. soft focus, rapid editing and the juxtaposition of shots, prevents a film from achieving true realism and argues by employing ‘deep focus’ within single shots gives a more truthful representation of time, dimension and ambiguity within the image representing real life as experienced by the audience, ‘depth of focus brings the spectator into a relation with the image closer to that which he enjoys with reality. Therefore it is correct to say that, independently of the contents of the image, its structure is more realistic’ (Bazin c2005:35).

If Bazin’s ideal is of a truthful cinema representative of reality it can be assumed his preference in narrative would be linear in nature, a filmic text that has events occurring sequentially as if it were being experienced in real life. It would be Eisenstein’s theory of montage that Bazin argues that the misuse of montage, the continued overuse of would allow non-linear narrative that is subjective in its structure to be presented in film, allowing the text to become a Freudian interpretation of the sub-conscious mind, a cinema of dreams and memory. Montage allows shots to represent and intercut the past, present or future in any order due to the ease of editing the image into various sequences, montage allows ‘the creation of a sense or meaning not objectively contained in the images themselves but derived exclusively from their juxtaposition’ (Bazin c2005:25).

Just as modern cinema became the construction of film as a language through the conflict of images as defined by Eisenstein and montage, post-modern cinema has strived to become a Bazinian representation of objective realism through the invention of the stedicam and handheld shots used prominently in mainstream Hollywood releases. Yet, Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) is post-modern cinema exploring conflict through non-linear narrative while adhering to Bazin’s idea of ‘truthful cinema’ and in particular his aesthetics of realism.

Notably Russian Ark’s standout feature is its use of a single stedicam shot covering the entire production which first grounds the film in Bazinian ‘truth’. With not a single cut both time and space is seemingly depicted as being real. The shot is from the perspective of a twentieth century Russian civilian (the narrator) voiced by the films director Andrew Sokurov, who is physically removed from the immediate environment, merely a spectator of the events as they unfold before him. As denoted by Bazin, a single shot portrays the ambiguity and linear fashion of reality as the audience knows it however, as the narrator moves throughout the Winter Palace he becomes subject to overlapping non-linear narratives of Russia’s past and present which include political reenactments, historical and fictional characters.

Employing the use of a single shot and, more subtly, ‘deep focus’ the cinematographic style in Russian Ark begins to make the aesthetics and narrative functions as a dream opposed to representing an objective reality, it takes on the qualities of a sub-conscious recognition of how the audience might come to view their own reality through a memory, as Gillis puts it ‘memories and identities are not fixed things, but representations or constructions of reality, subjective rather than objective phenomena’ (1994:3).

In the present one experiences the continuous flowing of time and events, in memory the continuous flow of time and the space which inhabits the mind becomes disjointed and merged. The non-linear narrative in Russian Ark resembles Russia’s sub-conscious mind which recalls different events that have taken place within the same space, they have collided and co- exist with each other, time is no longer relative.

With time and narrative constantly shifting throughout the film it is important for Sokurov to have a constant, an objective point of view and this is the function of the Winter Palace. Although the cameras gaze is of the narrators, he is simply moving throughout the space in which these memories are contained. Sokurov treats the Winter Palace as ‘organic architecture’1 and an interview with Mikahil Piotrovsky, Director of the State Hermitage Museum, reveals the Winter Palace ‘is not decoration...the museum was a feature, it was one of the heroes, the protagonist of the film’2 and this is apparent in the gaze and its admiration for the cultural paintings, sculpture and architecture of the halls opposed to the historical identities who move throughout them, the figures contained within the halls merely locate the memory in time for the audience.

Pasted Graphic

Russian Ark’s non-linear narrative structure is driven forward by the real life perception of the continuum of time and space represented in the single shot, it is never ending, the past becomes the narrators present and the present time appears as the future. Sukoruv is exploring the perception of memory and national identity, the movements of the camera are no longer coded with time, it moves freely.

The films text establishes the Winter Palace as Russia’s memory of the past while it (the nation) progresses towards an unknown future, this is established when the three museum workers (including Piotrovsky) discuss the throne in a dark and vacant room, they refer to the museum withstanding past events and proclaim, ‘the wars ahead... terrible wars’ and elude they will be able to continue to preserve because, ‘we managed to preserve all this through the catastrophes [before]’3.

[Montage] the reenforcing of the meaning of one image by association with another image. (Bazin c2005:25)

Despite its lack of cuts, Russian Ark employs the method of conflict as disseminated by Eisenstein in his theory of montage whereby two images collide on the screen (are juxtaposed) arising to conflict within the viewers mind thus establishing a third and subjective image or meaning.

As the camera moves through the galleries within the Winter Palace each room essentially acts as a cut or transition within the narrative. Contained within each new gallery are different representations of Russian history whose meaning collides with one another giving rise to subjective ideologies. Through this juxtaposition of Russian history the audience is able to disseminate time, space and narration to create their own interpretation of Russia’s progress throughout the three hundred years covered in the film.

An example of this collision is demonstrated when Marquis de Custine (Sergei Dontsov) exits a gallery hallway with 17th century figures admiring Catherine II’s frescos and enters the Small Italian Gallery with present day admirers dressed in 20th century clothing. Without a single cut Sokurov is able to transport the viewer across three hundred years of time, the space remains constant and the arising conflict between the two ‘images’ forces the audience to interpret the meaning of the transition from their own point of view and association with Russian culture.

Russian Ark is itself a juxtaposition upon Russian cinematic history. One of Russia’s most celebrated filmmakers, Sergei Eisenstein, established a language of cinema through montage and it was his 1927 film October that was shot in the Winter Palace, it features a sequence towards the end of the film heavily edited with rapid cuts portraying citizens of St Petersburg storming the Jordan Staircase at the entrance of the palace to overthrowing the Czar’s, this same staircase is featured in Russian Ark as aristocrats leave Czar Nicholas II’s lavish ball and head outside into the night and towards an uncertain political future filmed entirely with not a single cut. From my research this comparison establishes post-modern cinema as being a cinema of opposites, it is the breaking of the rules established by modern cinema to bring about a more profound and personal movie experience to a now educated audience.

When understanding a films text and the external reality surrounding a film an audience begins to draw comparisons from their life and the depiction of life represented in the film by investing emotionally in the text thus cinematic realism becomes a subjective point of view audiences can identify with once they are immersed in the filmic world. When the audience has become emotionally invested (often through empathy) they begin to loose awareness of the constructed world and techniques employed by the filmmaker and the narrative can freely shift into an unrealistic representation giving way to emotional experiences to surface as the film unfolds, audiences and film critics often refer to this as ‘the journey’.

Realism is deconstructed by Bazin as falling into moral truth (truth in story, characters and actions on screen) and aesthetic truth (reality of presentation and simulation). Russian Ark enables ‘the journey’ as it provides both moral and aesthetic truths, the story and characters on screen represent those who a real and the presentation is of a single shot that supposedly inhibits the breaking of time and narrative, yet for all its truths the film is untruthful and is hard to engage with in the first few minutes, eventually as the viewer becomes accustomed to the cinematographic style the journey transformed into a ‘nostalgia for an imaginary past [which] often produces various forms of erasure and national myths of origin. It treats history not as fact but as a poetic construction that has drifted in and out of Europe via metaphor, allusion, and myth.’ (Ravetto- Biagioli 2005:18).

It is further established in the film that what is unfolding is indeed the memory held by the Winter Palace. When the narrator begins to talk to himself in the opening scene, he says ‘I only remember there was some accident...I just can’t remember what happened to me. How strange. Where am I?’ inferring he is unfamiliar with the world around him, it is a reconstruction of a temporal reality induced by an event in his near past. Towards the conclusion of the film this is reiterated in the following conversation between the narrator and the Marquis de Custine:

Narrator: Let’s go.
Marquis de Custine: To where?
Narrator: Where? Forward.
Marquis de Custine: Forward...what will we find over there?
Narrator: Over there? I don’t know.
Marquis de Custine: I’m staying.

It becomes obvious the narrator wishes to leave the memory to go forward, back to his present and awaken from the dream whilst Marquis de Custine, an historical figure, cannot travel forward and instead chooses to stay within the objective reality of the Winter Palace.

As Gillies explains ‘identities and memories are not things we think about, but things we think with.’ (1994:5) Russian Ark is not just a journey through the Winter Palace in St Petersburg but a journey through the Russian soul with all the passionate tumult and pain contained over three hundred years of history. It presents the Winter Palace as a device Russia can use to evoke national memories of its past that may otherwise be lost in time.

As the title to the film suggests the word ‘ark’ draws relations to the ark of the covenant and like the ark that held the tablets inscribed by God, the museum is holding stories by the Russian people who shaped its future, but like Noah’s ark the Russian ark is afloat a vast sea (the Neva river has been transformed into an ocean in the final shot) retaining those stories in preservation for future generations.

End Notes

1 In One Breath. Dir. Knut Elstermann. Perf. Alexander Sokurov, Sergey Ivanov and Jens Meurer. Hermitage Bridge Studio, 2003. DVD.

2 Elstermann, K. Op. cit.

3 Russian Ark. Dir. Aleksandr Sokurov. Perf. Sergei Dontsov, Mariya Kuznetsove and Leonid Mozgovoy. Madman Entertainment, 2002. DVD.

Works Cited

Bazin, André. "Myth of Total Cinema." Qu'est-ce Que Le Cinéma? Trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California, C2005. 17-22. Print.

Bazin, André. "The Evolution of the Language of Cinema." Qu'est-ce Que Le Cinéma? Trans. Hugh Gray. Vol. 1. Berkeley: University of California, c2005. 23-40. Print.

Bordwell, David. "Eisenstein's Epistemological Shift." Screen Winter 15.4 (1974-75): 29-46. Print.

Cameron, Allan. "Contingency, Order, and the Modular Narrative: 21 Grams and Irreversible." Velvet Light Trap Fall 58 (2006): 65-78. Print.

Gillis, John P. "Memory and Identity: The History of a Relationship." Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity. Princeton: Princeton UP, C1994. 3-24. Print.

Kujundzic, Dragan. "After "After": The Arkive Fever of Alexander Sokurov." Quarterly Review of Film and Video 21 (2004): 219-39. Print.

Ravetto-Biagioli, Kriss. "Floating on the Borders of Europe Sokurov's Russian Ark." Film Quarterly Autumn 59.1 (2005): 18-26. University of California Press. Web. 24 Aug. 2010. .

Tribe, Kenneth. "History and the Production of Memories." Screen Winter 8.4 (1977-78): 9-22. Print.


Russian Ark. Dir. Aleksandr Sokurov. Perf. Sergei Dontsov, Mariya Kuznetsove and Leonid Mozgovoy. Madman Entertainment, 2002. DVD.

In One Breath. Dir. Knut Elstermann. Perf. Alexander Sokurov, Sergey Ivanov and Jens Meurer. Hermitage Bridge Studio, 2003. DVD.

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