Alexandre Sokourov. Russia, Germany 2002.
Produced by: Andrei Deryabin, Jens Meuer, Karsten Stoter
Writing credits: Anatoli Nikiforov, Aleksandr Sokurov
Music Performed by:
Director of photography: Tilman Buettner
Invisible to everyone around him, a contemporary filmmaker magically finds himself in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg- back in the early 1700's! He meets a cynical French diplomat from the 19th Century and the men become accomplices in an extraordinary time-traveling journey through Russia's turbulent past- ending in the present day.
Exploring the splendid corridors and salons of the Palace, the Marquis and the filmmaker witness astonishing scenes from the Tsarist Empire: Peter the Great thrashes his general with a whip; during rehearsals of her own play, Catherine the Great rushes around looking for a place to relieve herself; the family of the last Tsar dine together, oblivious to the impending revolution; and hundreds of dancers waltz at the last Great Royal Ball of 1913 with Valery Gergiev conducting.
As their time-voyage unfolds in a single, uncut steadicam shot, the two men engage in a passionate and ironic dispute. The Marquis clearly has a Western love-hate relationship with Russia, whereas the modern filmmaker questions his country's uneasy connection to its past and to Europe today. The two tease each other, and share their amazement at the scenes they encounter.
The Hermitage is the Russian Ark, affectionately guarding art and history until the world sees better days.
Alexander Sokurov's extraordinary vision of filming RUSSIAN ARK in one uninterrupted take required extraordinary technical solutions. As it is physically impossible to record more than twelve continuous minutes of conventional film, they had to turn to video. However, it was only the fairly recent arrival of compact 24p High Definition cameras that offered the visual quality and portability to make this film for cinema, eventually transferring the digital image to 35mm negative.
With the help of German HD-specialists KOPP MEDIA, a complex portable rig was designed to accommodate the demands of the script, which included precise architectural plans outlining the distance of 4,265 feet covered in the narrative. It was decided that the only way to move the camera would be using a steadicam, although, until after the final shoot, they could not be sure that such a long steadicam shot would even be possible because of the extreme physical demands on the operator.
The next challenge was the recording medium. The high definition camera used (a Sony HDW-F900) made it possible to shoot in one take, but there was no way of storing all the information since an HD camera can only record 46 minutes without changing tapes and the shoot required 90 minutes of recording time. The Cologne-based company Director's Friend provided the solution. They developed a prototype hard disk recording system adapted to be portable and equipped with a special ultra-stable battery. This system could record up to 100 minutes of uncompressed image, but only once.
Hence there was but a single shooting day with four hours of existing light. Thousands of people in front of and behind the camera simply had to work together perfectly. The Hermitage was closed and restored to its original condition allowing cinematographer Tilman Buttner to travel through the Museum through an equivalent of 33 studios, each of which had to be lit in one go to allow for 360-degree camera movements. All of this was accomplished within a vulnerable environment that holds some of the greatest art treasures of all time, from Da Vinci to Rembrandt. After months of rehearsals, 867 actors, hundreds of extras, three live orchestras and 22 assistant directors had to know their precise positions and lines.
The list of things that could have gone wrong is very long. But through the sheer determination of the director, or possibly a miracle, nothing did. It worked, and the first-ever single screen, single-take full-length feature was created.
New project of the director Aleksandr Sokurov at the Hermitage
On 23 December, 2001, the Hermitage took part in the Russian Ark Project, the new experimental documentary/feature film of the famous director Aleksandr Sokurov. The director conceived Russian Ark as an unprecedented, continuous, full-length trip into the world of the Hermitage in the form of a succession of prearranged and accidental meetings.
The idea advanced by Aleksandr Sokurov and the Hermitage Director Mikhail Piotrovsky impressed German producers from Egoli Films and WDR/ARTE. The film's chief operator is Thielman Buettner who directed the famous Run, Lola, Run. The film is not an orderly or coherent story. It encompasses events of the 18th to the 20th centuries. 2,000 extras, 1,000 dancers, orchestras of the Mariinsky Theater and the State Hermitage Museum, museum personnel, first of all, collection custodians who saw to historical verity and famous St. Petersburg actors including Mariya Kuznetsova and Leonid Mozgovoy took part in the shooting.
Aleksandr Sokurov described the future film's genre as "a few words of a few people." From Peter the Great's modest rooms in the Third Winter Palace, the camera proceeded through lonely passages to grand staircases and luxurious halls of the New and Small Hermitages and Winter Palace. In the halls were reenacted episodes from the life of Russian Emperors, imperial balls, diplomatic receptions and events with the participation of famous visitors to the Hermitage and its legendary directors, Academicians Iosif Orbeli and Boris Piotrovsky (father of Mikhail Piotrovsky).
All was ready by noon on 23 December when the shooting started. The group three times had to go back to its place of departure, the exit to the yard of Peter the 1st's Winter Palace. It was only the fourth attempt started at 1.50 pm with the deadline quickly approaching (it was the shortest day of the year) that brought the shooting successfully to its end. All was finished at 3.18 pm. An hour later a press conference started in the Hermitage Theater with the participation of the Hermitage Director Mikhail Piotrovsky, Aleksandr Sokurov, artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater Valery Gergiyev and Russian producer Andrey Deryabin. At this time the operator Thielman Buettner with his colleagues were already looking through the material that had been shot.
It is expected that the film will be premiered in Russia when the tercentenary of St. Petersburg is celebrated. The State Hermitage Museum's personnel will be the first to see it.
(Source: State Hermitage Museum 2000)