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As the camera watches a group of revellers in 18th-century formal dress enter St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, a bewildered voice behind the camera – that of director Aleksandr Sokurov himself – wonders where he is and how he came to be here. As this narrator wanders among the excited party-goers, who seem not to see him, we realise that he has died; effectively, he is a ghost.
He is soon joined by another, presumably dead, man – the Marquis de Custine, a French travel writer best-known for his visit to Imperial Russia in the late 1830s. As these two make their way through the museum’s galleries, they encounter the Hermitage’s inhabitants and visitors of various eras of St. Petersburg’s history – among them Catherine the Great, the family of Tsar Nicholas II, the museum director during the time of Josef Stalin and a man crafting his own coffin during the Siege of Leningrad.
Perhaps the film’s best-known element is its single, 90-minute shot. This, along with the setting – 33 three lavish rooms of the Winter Palace of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg – make for a phenomenon of grand proportions. The film is far more than mere spectacle, however. Touching on 300 years of Russian history, it is joyous celebration and dark critique, comic and tragic, and, finally, a complex meditation on art, culture and society. Gloriously enigmatic and endlessly engaging, Aleksandr Sokurov’s ‘Russian Ark’ is nothing short of a cinematic tour-de-force.