Russian Ark (2002)

First published in the British Fantasy Journal. 16 (107-12).

“I open my eyes and I see nothing. I only remember there was an accident. Everyone ran for safety as best they could. I just can’t remember what happened to me.”

Russian Ark, directed by Alexander Sokurov in 2002, is a ghost story, albeit an elliptical and elusive one. It’s a movie whose meaning and substance threatens to be subsumed by the method of its production: notably, the film takes the form of a single continuous shot, the digital camera gliding without any edits through the rooms and corridors of the Hermitage in St Petersburg. The steadicam is the main character of the movie: a spectator who encounters a series of historical tableau from Peter the Great to Tsar Nicholas I to World War II and who also mingles with modern day tourists. Along the way this spectator is joined by two other characters: the European and the spy, both of whom move through the vignettes with the spectator, at times guiding him and at times following or pursuing him, sometimes even ‘curating’ the events that take place around them.

The subtextual depth and enigmatic quality of Russian Ark means that most commentaries on the film focus either on the feat of its production or on trying to unpack what Sokurov is really saying about Russia, Europe and their intertwined histories. Whilst both of these analyses are integral to the film and thus unavoidable, what struck me on watching it was that it was also a very sophisticated work of fantasy. The genre of the ghost story varies wildly across the world from the ‘warnings to the curious’ of MR James short stories to the more benign and ‘neighbourly’ Japanese spirits. Sokurov’s adoption of the genre is a complex one and, I would argue, is fed by his political, historical and personal preoccupations and shaped by his desire to make Russian Ark in the way he did. His film manages to piggyback on the themes and conventions of the genre to create an apocalyptic fantasy that acts as both a nostalgic elegy for the grandeur of Russia’s Imperial past, and as a snapshot of the state of the country in the early 2000s, threatened by the expansion of Europe. All this takes place in a film that pushes modern technology, and the operators of the technology, to their limits.

Russian Ark is steeped in allusions to death, decay and the apocalypse, allusions that are entirely appropriate to the ghost story genre. It is a film preoccupied by what happens after ‘the end’: the end of history, of art, of Russia and even after the end of the act of making the movie. As it is a ghost story, the film is also riddled with spectres from the past, but in Sokurov’s movie everything is a ghost from the historical characters to the modern tourists, the European, the spy and the spectator himself. The interactions between these characters is unsettling and, at times, eerie, for example the moment we realise that the European and the spy can see the spectator after the camera has been gliding past other, more oblivious characters, is jarring. This feeling of liminal presences unexpectedly becoming aware of their surroundings is similar to that evoked by films such as Alejandro Amenábar’s 2001 movie The Others or the numerous adaptations of Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw. As with these films, Russian Ark also features a location that is an integral part of the ghost story, in this case the Hermitage, digitally relocated at the end of the movie to turn it into the ‘ark’ of the title, adrift in the floods. Also, as in The Others and The Turn of the Screw, the location takes on a life (perhaps a death) of its own and becomes another ghost in the film.

Setting Russian Ark in a place like the Hermitage, and filming it in a way that feels almost like the endoscopic exploration of the labyrinthine internal passages of a living being (more Johan than Noah), creates an richly immersive environment for a ghost story. Within this eerie, almost sterile space, the choice of vignettes, the focus on particular works of art and the rich, enigmatic narration develop the national and historical themes of the film but also constantly reference the idea of the past haunting the present. In 1993, Jacques Derrida outlined his theory of ‘hauntology’ in his book Specters of Marx (Derrida, 1993), a theory which critic Chris Hughes summarises as ‘the idea that there is something from the past which is always present in the present; and, also, that this something is waiting for its return in the future to come’. (Hughes, 2012, 15) Derrida, as the title of his book suggests, posited the idea of Marx as a ‘ghost’ from history, waiting to return, but expanded this metaphor to latch onto a millennial preoccupation, seen also in writings by postmodern critics such as Jean Baudrillard, with the ‘end of history’. Derrida’s argues that the theory of hauntology means that there is ‘no end of history, because there are always specters waiting to return – there is always an, as yet, unknown future to come.’ (Hughes, 2012, 15) It doesn’t take a great leap to see traces of this knotty postmodern theory in Russian Ark with its tangle of past, present and, in the way it is produced, future timescapes.

It’s also possible, however, to read the ghost story aspects of Russian Ark as an active riposte to Derrida’s metaphor. The whole film is posited on the notion of the ‘end’ and a movement towards it: the end of culture, the end of time and even, as the camera glides towards the final scenes, the end of the movie. The Hermitage is a mausoleum, reeking of formaldehyde and containing or preserving both the culture and the history of a nation. Furthermore, Derrida’s focus on Marx as the centre of his theory, and of the key spectre without who there would be ‘no future’ is denied by Sokurov (Derrida, 1993, 14). There is, in short, a black hole in Russian Ark where Soviet-era communism should be. With very few exceptions, one being a particularly bleak vignette set during the siege of Leningrad, the ghostly visitations from the past come from before the twentieth century and when they do they focus on the pomp and spectacle of Imperial rule. Also, as critic and director Jeremi Szaniawski notes, the construction of the film itself, eschewing, even reacting against, the tradition of cinematic montage that formed the backbone of Soviet cinema (Szaniawski, 2014, 174). The ghost story of Russian Ark, therefore is a nostalgic one that fetishizes a mythic ‘prelapsarian’ past and, in contradiction to Derrida’s cyclical theory in which spectres from the past presage the future, Sokurov’s ghosts are trapped in the aspic environment of the Hermitage and within the confines of his own movie. To this end, the formal construction and the act of filming Russian Ark is more than just a novelty.

Szaniawski considered the novelty of the unbroken filming of Russian Ark ‘in one breath’ as lending it ‘the fragile quality of a burning flame, flickering in the tormented winds of the contingencies of cinematic production’ (Szaniawski, 2014, 167). This analogy is not just a piece of whimsy but points towards a particular source that in turn speaks to the significance of the use of the shot. The penultimate scene of the 1983 movie Nostalghia, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (a filmmaker that Sokurov acknowledges as a major influence) is a ten minute unbroken shot depicting a Russian historian who, on a research trip to Italy, has been tasked by a local mystic to carry a lit candle across a drained Roman bath. He tries and fails three times, the camera follows him as he returns to the beginning to relight the candle, on the final attempt he makes it across the bath, fixes the candle at other side and then seemingly drops dead. Critic Stanley Kauffmann describes the filming of Russian Ark, not just a ‘technically permitted stunt’ but also ‘ultimately the film’s aesthetic being’ (Kauffmann, 2002, 26), but the connection with the scene in Nostalghia suggests that the single take is more than just about the look or feel of the film but also connects with the theme of apocalyptic elegy that runs through the dialogue and the staging of the vignettes. This feeling of doom, therefore, spreads to the physical and emotional labour of the very production of the film. Just as Tarkovsky’s historian finds the act of carrying the candle to be overwhelming and, in his case, fatal, as we can see in the ‘making of’ documentary, the act of filming Russian Ark proved to be almost too much for both the director and the cameraman. This blurring between the journey of the spectator within the film and the journey of the camera which is, essentially ‘playing’ the spectator is completed by the casting of Sokurov himself as the voice of the narrator. In short, the physical filming of Sokurov’s movie is akin to an act of attritional pilgrimage; a journey of discovery that depletes rather than nourishes. As in Nostalghia, this pilgrimage ultimately leads to a frozen, melancholic monument rather than religious revelation or a sense of completeness. For me, this is the core of the ghost story that Sokurov is telling: the atmosphere of decay, combined with a nod towards Derrida’s notion of hauntology, is imprinted into the fabric of the film by what happens behind the camera as much as in front of it.

Russian Ark is a rich commentary on history, an analysis on the themes of nostalgia and the ways in which elements of the past bleed into the present, a personal odyssey for its director and even offers a side-swipe at the constructivist, formalist approach of Soviet era filmmakers. Looking beyond these subtexts, however, it is possible to see it as a mesmerising and oneiric fantasy, essentially as a ghost story. There was once a reaction to Agatha Christie’s playful manipulation on the format of the whodunit that claimed that the ultimate twist on the detective genre was a story in which the reader was the killer. With Russian Ark, Sukorov achieves the ultimate twist on his genre: he transforms the viewer into a ghost.

Derrida, J. (1994). Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. New York: Routledge.

Hughes, C. (2012). Dialogue Between Fukuyama’s Account of the End of History and Derrida’s Hauntology. Journal of Philosophy: A Cross-Disciplinary Inquiry. 7 (18).

Kauffmann, S. (2002). Remembrances. New Republic. 227 (25).

Szaniawski, J. (2014). The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov. London: Wallflower Press.


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