On a wintry December day in 2001, the herculean cinematographer Tilman Büttner (Run Lola Run) strapped on a Steadicam and captured the whole of this mysterious feature in a single shot, snaking through crowded rooms, up and down stairwells and ultimately out a side door of St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace. If that mind-boggling achievement gets you in the theater, then so be it. The best style has a purpose to it, and Russian Ark, in its hypnotic, endless swirl, gets at a deep truth of the post-Soviet psyche, haunted by its legacy of czarist rule and Stalin-era sacrifice. The film is a sad home for ghosts.
Its director, Alexander Sokurov, pushes his conceit to the theatrical hilt: A foppish French marquis (Sergey Dreyden) cavorts in front of us, thrilled to be a tour guide to all the paintings, while no fewer than three separate orchestras await in different chambers. Mumbling but never seen is a narrator (Sokurov himself), maybe a dead man, who wanders the terrain like the player of some arty first-person shooter. We see laughing royal children and forlorn WWII siege survivors, their voices echoing long after the final fade. This is as immersive—and as Shining-level spooky—as history gets.
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