What’s the point of a one shot film? Is it simply a gimmick, a way to attract viewers to an otherwise uninteresting movie? Or can it be something more? The Russian film Russian Ark (2002) asks and answers those questions.
Russian Ark has many factors to attract filmgoers. It covers 300 years of Russian history through the characters of the unseen narrator (voiced by the director and co-writer Alexander Sokuro), the European (a mysterious character played by Sergei Dontsov), and the 2,000 people (real and fictitious) they observe and/or interact with throughout their self-led tour of 33 rooms of the famous Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. The museum was founded by Catherine the Great in 1764 and has been open to the public since 1852. It started off in just one building but has now expanded to six different buildings, most of which are located in the same area along the Palace Embankment. One of the most famous is the Winter Palace, which was home to many Russian royals over the centuries, including Catherine the Great herself. The movie is 96 minutes long and, like I mentioned early, is shot in one unedited take.
It’s hard to relate the experience of watching Russian Ark. It may sound cliché, but it really is unlike most films you’re likely to see. Many have described it as being like a dream. I can’t disagree. You practically float from one room to another, from one time period to another as these two men (whose identities or fates are hinted at but never stated outright) talk about Russia’s value as a country when compared to others in Europe, its history, and the many amazing works of art and period architecture viewable in the museum.
We never see a whole lot of any one period of time. Instead, we get glimpses of the bygone eras. We are given teases of Catherine the Great; we listen in on conversations between the Tsar Nicholas II and his family, among them the famous Anastasia; we take part in the last great Russian ball in 1913, which took place right before the First World War; and we get an ever so brief glimpse of the horrifying death present in Russia during World War II. These tastes of the everyday lives of Russians long since gone left me needing to do a lot of inferring about what was being referenced in the conversations and actions occurring onscreen. I find this infinitely more fascinating and stimulating than if everything was spelled out for me.
With the artwork on top of all that, however, the film can get a little overwhelming at times. Add to that the exorbitant amount of Russian dialogue amongst characters often speaking at the same time, there ended up being plenty I didn’t catch, both visually and aurally. The story also doesn’t have the normal rhythms and beats that other films do, and the character development isn’t as apparent – it is there, though. These issues might turn some viewers away. I say, give it a shot anyway.
I didn’t completely lack frustration while watching the movie, and I didn’t necessarily love the film while I watched it. I did love how it made me feel afterwards, I loved the breathtakingly gorgeous visuals, and I loved the a-little-over-my-head-but-still-interesting ideas.
To submit my own answer to the questions I asked above, yes, one shot films can be more than a gimmick, so much more. I am convinced one of the primary reasons Russian Ark is as effective and emotional as it is, is because of how it was shot. Sokuro didn’t do the movie in the way that he did just to put butts in the seats or to get “ooos” and “ahhhs” from his peers and betters. He did it to serve the story. And I for one can’t wait to experience that story again. Check out the video below if you want a further taste of this one of a kind film.