There are two films in my archive that reflect the efforts of early Russian filmmakers to reject the aristocratic conventions of the past and invent new ways of viewing the demands of life in modern times. Despite populist sympathies, the two experimental films were not well received by the Soviet government, which saw them as too self-indulgently artistic.

The Man With a Movie Camera (1924) uses a montage technique, already seen in the pioneering works of Sergei Eisenstein, to comment on 20th-century progress under Soviet rule. Happiness (1934) employs updates on comedic traditions to look back at the relationships between peasants and aristocrats from the post-revolutionary perspective. This film rightly belongs in my breakaway volume called The Vaudeville of History. Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-86), making films for a later generation, leaned toward a morose approach. Nostalghia (1983) was made at the end of his career when he was in exile from Russia. More recently, the landmark film by Alexander Sokurov (b. 1951), called The Russian Ark, introduced exceptionally innovative film technique to celebrate the glories of the Russian aristocratic past, with an ironic eye. Still today, Russia is conflicted in deciding which part of it’s past to value.

Nostalghia  (1983)

This film by Andrei Tarkovsky was made in Italy with the aid of Michelangelo Antonioni.  It is the story of a Russian poet/scholar and his beautiful translator/mistress traveling through central Italy gathering information on a composer of an earlier time.  For Tarkovsky, the Russian word “nostalghia” (say it with a hard g) does not denote a pleasant sentiment, but rather a longing for what has been lost. An early sequence in a rural convent features a procession of women calling on the Virgin Mother to give them children. The release of a flock of birds from the Virgin’s breast verges into magic realism.  The translator asks the priest why it is that women pray so much more than men.

The poet is tormented by memories of his wife and children in Russia (seen in flashbacks) and cannot respond to the emotional needs of his Botticelli-like companion.  When they check into a Tuscan guesthouse, the tensions between them escalate. She rages against the indifference of men, and then she leaves him.  He meets an old man named Domenico who feeds his need for apocalyptic imagery. This old man had once imprisoned his family for seven years to save them from the evils that would come with the end of the world. The scenes in Tuscany are long and contemplative, and superbly photographed.

It concludes in Rome with Domenico giving an impassioned oration on top of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (or one just like it), calling for a renewal of the world, then using a combustible fluid to set himself on fire. Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” plays on his tape recorder.  The poet walks up and down with a lighted candle and tortured memories.  He dies in the ruins of an ancient mineral bath. An epilogue finds the poet and his dog in a field by a reflective puddle. It is revealed, as the camera pulls back, to be within the confines of a massive ruined cathedral. The End.

Almost every element of this film leans toward metaphors of the end of Civilization as we have known it. In one poignant flashback, the poet’s young son asks, “Dad, is this the end of the world?” For these lost souls, poetry is dead; art is dead; philosophy is dead; political discourse is dead; religion is dead.

This film is an expression of the deep cultural paralysis affecting the Old World of the West in the waning years of the 20th century. It partly explains the demise of the Foreign Film market in these years. By the end of the century, European film appeared to be on the verge of exhaustion and could only turn back to reflect upon itself. What little there was of interest on the Foreign video shelves came from “developing countries.” Cinemania says that Tarkovsky labeled this film as “tedious.” I thought it was a superb exercise of cinematic poetry, however bleak and backward-looking.

State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, former Winer Palace.

State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, former Winter Palace of the Russian monarchy.

Russian Ark  (2002)

Notes taken while watching the movie:

Filmed at The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, “in one breath,” director Alexander Sokurov’s vision was to follow a character called “The Ironic Marquis” through the halls of the real museum and through 300 years of Russian history.  The museum was closed for one day and the film was made in a continuous traveling shot of 90-odd minutes.  Sukurov sees the museum as an “ark of culture,” bridging the divide between Europe and Russia.  Culture, he says, is what separates us from the animals.

It opens on a dark screen with a Disembodied Voice speaking of an accident and wondering if he is waking in a dream.  A group of 18th century aristocrats arrives at the Hermitage for a masquerade ball and the camera follows their progress.  In various chambers there are scenes from the lives of two of the Greats, Peter and Catherine.  Suddenly the Ironic Marquis is standing in a passageway, and he begins what seems like a private tour of the museum, offering commentaries on the glories and vanities of art.  He comes upon a rehearsal for a theatrical production, which morphs into a full-scale pageant on a stage in the Winter Palace.  Catherine is there. He enters a red-walled gallery of Italian painting, noting indignantly that a nude Cleopatra and a painting of Christ are hung on the same wall.  The hallway outside this gallery is an elaborate replica of the Raphael hall in the Vatican.  Moving into a large sculpture gallery, he speaks contemptuously of the Russian propensity for imitating or appropriating the Europeans.  But then he comes to the Three Graces by Canova.  When he first spies the Triple Goddess, he cries out, “Mother!”  Later he explains that his mother knew Canova in Paris.  Despite his disdain for most of the other work in the gallery, he rhapsodizes over the Canova.  “What a feel for the material!” 

The Marquis and the Disembodied Voice are engaged in dialogue on Russian culture.  The Voice is still wondering if this is all a dream.  The Marquis meets a blind woman admiring a nude fairy in marble by caressing it with her hands.  She walks with him to the Flemish galleries and tells him about some of the works, concentrating on Van Dyck and Rubens.  Continuing on his odyssey, the Marquis disputes with a young man in front of a painting of the Saints Peter and Paul, and has an encounter with an older woman in front of a Rembrandt nude.  He moves on and finds a room with a scene of desolation. This leads to talk of the German devastation of Russia in World War II.  He turns back and encounters Catherine again; she is old and takes a determined walk in the snowy courtyard, which must have seemed significant to someone.  Next the Marquis enters a large hall where a royal audience is in progress.  Ambassadors from Tehran are asking forgiveness for an unfortunate incidence of violence at the Russian embassy in that city.  The Marquis is asked to leave, and he comes upon a Watteau-like theatrical troupe rehearsing with masks.  In yet another opulent room, museum directors past and present speak of modern issues.  The current director plays himself.

Abruptly there are scenes of the last days of the Czar and his daughter, Anastasia.  Now the Marquis comes to the ballroom where the aristocrats of the opening scenes are dancing, though there are no signs of masquerade and the time seems to be perhaps just before the Revolution.  The Marquis joins the dancing.  There is a full orchestra and the camera lingers on the conductor.  When the ball is over, there is a long exodus of the aristocrats down the marble staircases; intimations of the end of an era.  The Voice bids farewell to the Marquis, who has chosen to remain in the past.  He is now being addressed as “Europe.”  The camera turns from the thronging glitterati to an open door outside of which is a solarized seascape.  The Voice speaks vaguely of immortality.

There is not a single low-born or proletariat person in the entire movie.  As the Marquis observes early in the film, this is the museum as theater of Civilization; a love song to the Old World, it refuses to enter the future.  It was produced with the sanction of the Hermitage.  There is a Making Of and a documentary on the DVD, both of which stress the deep importance of the Hermitage in Russian cultural life.

In One Breath: Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2003)

 This is among the Extra Features found on the DVD for Russian Ark. It is available on YouTube.

A year after we visited Russia and China, including the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, I watched the full presentation of Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film on TCM. At the conclusion of the fifteen episodes, he gives the place of honor to Russian Ark, and includes an interview with director Alexander Sokurov. What is most in evidence here is the unabated Russian obsession with its aristocratic past set against the backdrop of the terrible events of the 20th century.

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