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Russian Ark

Russian Ark
DVD cover
Directed by Alexander Sokurov
Produced by Andrey Deryabin
Jens Meurer
Karsten Stöter
Written by Anatoli Nikiforov
Alexander Sokurov
Starring Sergei Dreiden
Narrated by Alexander Sokurov
Music by Sergei Yevtushenko
Cinematography Tilman Büttner
Edited by Stefan Ciupek
Sergei Ivanov
Betina Kuntzsch
Patrick Wilfert
Seville Pictures
Distributed by Wellspring Media
Release dates
  • 22 May 2002 (2002-05-22) (Cannes)
  • 19 April 2003 (2003-04-19) (Russia)
  • 1 May 2003 (2003-05-01) (Germany)
Running time
96 minutes
Country Russia
Language Russian
Box office $6,685,748[1]

Russian Ark (Russian: Русский ковчег, Russkij Kovcheg) is a 2002 historical drama film directed by Alexander Sokurov. It was filmed entirely in the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum using a single 96-minute Steadicam sequence shot. The film was entered into the 2002 Cannes Film Festival.[2]

An unnamed narrator wanders through the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. The narrator implies that he died in some horrible accident and is a ghost drifting through the palace. In each room, he encounters various real and fictional people from various periods in the city's 300-year history. He is accompanied by "the European", who represents the Marquis de Custine, a nineteenth-century French traveler. Russian Ark uses the fourth wall device extensively, but repeatedly broken and re-erected. At times the narrator and the companion interact with the other performers, while at other times they pass unnoticed.


  • Plot 1
  • Cast 2
  • Production 3
  • Post-production 4
  • Background 5
  • Reception 6
    • Box office 6.1
    • Critical reviews 6.2
    • Awards 6.3
  • References 7
  • External links 8


On a winter's day, a small party of men and women arrive by horse-drawn carriage to a manor, side entrance of the Winter Palace. The narrator (whose point of view is always in first-person) meets another spectral but visible outsider, "the European", and follows him through numerous rooms of the palace. Each room manifests a different period of Russian history, but the periods are not in chronological order.

Featured are Peter the Great harassing one of his generals; a spectacular presentation of operas and plays in the era of Catherine the Great; an imperial audience in which Tsar Nicholas I is offered a formal apology by the Shah of Iran for the death of Alexander Griboedov, an ambassador; the idyllic family life of Tsar Nicholas II's children; the ceremonial changing of the Palace Guard; the museum's director whispering the need to make repairs during the rule of Joseph Stalin; and a desperate Leningrader making his own coffin during the 900-day siege of the city during World War II.

A grand ball follows, featuring music by Mikhail Glinka, with many of the participants in spectacular period costume, and a full orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev, then a long final exit with a crowd down the grand staircase.

The narrator then walks backwards out the hallway and sees many different people dressed in different clothing from different time periods. The narrator then leaves the building through a side exit and sees an endless ocean, but does not look back or see the building, which can be interpreted as an ark preserving Russian culture as it floats in the sea of time.



The film displays 33 rooms of the museum, which are filled with a cast of over 2,000 actors and three orchestras. Russian Ark was recorded in uncompressed high definition video using a Sony HDW-F900. The information was not recorded compressed to tape as usual, but uncompressed onto a hard disk which could hold 100 minutes which was carried behind the cameraman as he traveled from room to room, scene to scene. According to In One Breath, the documentary on the making of the film, four attempts were made. The first failed at the five minute mark. After two more failed attempts, they were left with only enough battery power for one final take. The four hours of daylight available were also nearly gone. Fortunately, the final take was a success and the film was completed at 90 minutes. Tilman Büttner, the director of photography and Steadicam operator, executed the shot on 23 December 2001.

In a 2002 interview, Büttner said that film sound was recorded separately. "Every time I did the take, or someone else made a mistake, I would curse, and that would have gotten in, so we did the sound later."[3] Lighting directors of photography on the film were Bernd Fischer and Anatoli Radionov.[4] The director later drew a distinction between the whole project and the achievements of Büttner by rejecting[5] Büttner's nomination for a European Film Academy award, believing that only the whole film should gain an award.


In post-production the uncompressed HD 87-minute one-shot could be reworked in detail: besides many object removals, compositings, selective colour-corrections and digitally added focus changes, the whole film was continuously and dynamically reframed and for certain moments even timewarped. Most of this was executed on Discreet Logic's Inferno system and leaving the picture uncompressed before being reprinted onto filmstock for theatrical distribution.


The narrator's guide, "the European", is based on the Marquis de Custine, who visited Russia in 1839 and wrote a book about his visit, La Russie en 1839. A few biographical elements from Custine's life are shown in the film. Like the European, the Marquis' mother was friends with the Italian sculptor Canova and he himself was very religious. Custine's book mocks Russian civilization as a thin veneer of Europe on an Asiatic soul. Echoing this sentiment, the film's European comments that Russia is a theater and that the people he meets are actors. The Marquis' family fortune came from a porcelain works, hence the European's interest in the Sèvres porcelain waiting for the diplomatic reception. At the end of the film, which depicts the last imperial ball in 1913, the European appears to accept Russia as a European nation.

In One Breath, a documentary about the making of Russian Ark, written and directed by Knut Elstermann, gives more insight into the single long shot tracking techniques and formidable organisation behind the making of the film.


Box office

The film was not a huge commercial success, though as an arthouse film it performed strongly in many territories. These include the UK, Japan, Korea, Argentina, and especially the US, where the film remains one of the most successful of both German and Russian movies of the last decades.

Russian Ark is a German-Russian co-production. The film grossed $3,011,013 in the United States and Canada, with $3,674,735 internationally, for a worldwide total of $6,685,748.[1]

Critical reviews

Russian Ark received high critical acclaim. Roger Ebert wrote, "Apart from anything else, this is one of the best-sustained ideas I have ever seen on the screen.... [T]he effect of the unbroken flow of images (experimented with in the past by directors like Hitchcock and Max Ophüls) is uncanny. If cinema is sometimes dreamlike, then every edit is an awakening. Russian Ark spins a daydream made of centuries."[6]

Rotten Tomatoes gave the film an 88% "fresh" rating, with this consensus review summary: "As successful as it is ambitious, Russian Ark condenses three centuries of Russian history into a single, uninterrupted, 87-minute take."[7] On Metacritic, which uses an average of critics' reviews, the film has an 86/100 rating, indicating "universal acclaim".[8]

Slant Magazine ranked the film 84th in its list of best films of the 2000s.[9] In a poll of 500 films held by Empire magazine, it was voted 358th Greatest Movie of all time.[10]


Russian Ark received the Visions Award at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival, a Special Citation at the 2003 San Francisco Film Critics Circle Awards and the 2004 Silver Condor Award for Best Foreign Film from the Argentine Film Critics Association; it was also nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, the Golden Hugo at the 2002 Chicago International Film Festival and the 2004 Nika Award for Best Film. In addition, Alexander Sokurov was named Best Director at Fancine in 2003 and was nominated for the 2002 European Film Award for Best Director. Cinematographer Tilman Büttner was also nominated for various awards for his work on the film, including a European Film Award and a German Camera Award.


  1. ^ a b Russian Ark at Box Office Mojo
  2. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Russian Ark". Retrieved 25 October 2009. 
  3. ^ "Interview: Achieving the Cinematic Impossible". indieWIRE. Retrieved 13 October 2011. 
  4. ^ "Full Cast and Crew for Russiky kovcheg". Russiky kovcheg. Retrieved 1 August 2008. 
  5. ^ "To the European Film Awards". The Island of Sokurov. Retrieved 1 August 2008. 
  6. ^ "Russian Ark". Sun Times. Retrieved 1 August 2008. 
  7. ^ Russian Ark at Rotten Tomatoes
  8. ^ Russian Ark at Metacritic
  9. ^ "Best of the Aughts: Film".  
  10. ^

External links

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