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Vertov Boards The Russian Ark

Essay by Yoni Turkienicz, May 2011

Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark attempts to use the innovative technology offered by digital filmmaking to bring the nostalgia of imperial Russia into the cultural context of modern Russian society’s relationship with Europe and vice versa. Through one continuous shot which Sokurov repeatedly calls “a film in one breath” (I.00:01:07), Sokurov achieves a constantly flowing, carefully weaved passage through three hundred years of Russian history through Catherine the Great’s Winter Palace and the Hermitage museum. However, there is one key component which is seemingly missing from the history that Sokurov is trying to tell- the Soviet era. While Sokurov appears extremely nostalgic towards Russia’s imperial past, he seems to neglect over seventy years of Russian history which are the Soviet period. The only reference we get to life (and art) during this period is during the scene where a carpenter is building coffins in a room with empty picture frames (II. 0:48:50), which is an allusion to the time during the siege of Leningrad in World War II, where pieces from the museum had to be moved out to a secure location. Other than that single scene, it is difficult to find any other references to Soviet influences on Russian culture in this film. This is surprising to me because one of the first films that came to my mind when watching Russian Ark was Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. Vertov’s film is starkly different from Sokurov in that it tries to tell the story of a culture, or a new (Soviet) society with the use of rapid cuts and montage. This is obviously an extreme contrast with the singular continuous shot which makes up Russian Ark; however, I believe these two films put side to side share many similarities which distinguish them in the technique of using cinematic tools to convey a particular feeling or message. If Sokurov’s whole purpose is to tell a story in one breath about culture in Russian society, then Vertov’s purposes is demonstrate how such a high culture can be boiled down for the worker and evolve to create a new kind of art.

In order to understand how these two ideas contrast and meet each other we must reverse our timeline- we need to start with Sokurov and end with Vertov. Vertov finishes Man With the Movie Camera with an iconic shot of a iris of a camera lens closing superimposed over an eye (III.01:06:34). Sokurov’s Russian Ark opens with a dark screen, a closed iris if you will, and with a sentence which says “I open my eyes and I see nothing” (II.00:01:42) . This comes as if to suggest that the world which Vertov has created with his depiction of the new soviet society is irrelevant. Right from the beginning of the movie Sokurov gives us a statement of purpose, he will bring life into this nothingness, he will bring back a world which Vertov and his peers have strived to hide. In Sokurov’s carefully constructed world, the constantly moving eye in the frantic editing sequence in the end of Man with the Movie Camera is put to rest. It is sedated under the influence of the flowing tour of Russian imperialist culture. Furthermore, in the whole opening sequence of Russian Ark up to the introduction of the Marquis (II. 0:01:42-0:05:39) Sokurov re-opens Vertov’s iris to tackle the idea of the gaze and of the cine-eye. Yana Hashamova describes this idea best in her book Pride & Panic saying “The beginning invites further elaboration in psychoanalytic terms through the concept of object a and the dialectics of the gaze. The blind spot of the film’s opening and its ambiguity evokes Lacan’s claim that the gaze qua object a prevents the subject from knowing what is there beyond appearance [Lacan 1981, 77]” (Hashmanova, 70). As Hashmanova points out, Sokurov challenges the notion that film is no more than a spectacle right from the beginning of the film. Sokurov’s voice then goes on to tell us that there was some kind of an accident, people ran away and hid as best they could and our narrator doesn’t know what happened to him. Personally, I see that as a comment on the entire soviet period and the answer to why Sokurov chose to focus on Czarist Russia as the main staple of Russian Ark; Sokurov is actively trying to forget that communism ever happened and regards it as an accident. When he opens his Kino-eye he sees nothing because for him the Soviet period, or post-revolutionary filmmaking was never a part of what he is about to show is he considers Russian high culture to be. This might be attributed to the fact that most of the movies Sokurov made before the collapse of the Soviet Union were shelved, and so one can justly understand why someone like Sokurov who was born into Stalisinst Russia (1951) andwas influenced by post Eisensteinian and Vertovian cinema could assume that this period had no importance in the larger scheme of Russian culture. Here, one could come and say that there really isn’t a space for Soviet art in a movie about the Hermitage, which carries mostly pre-soviet art in the museum. But I believe that if Sokurov presumes to make a movie about Russian culture it is inconceivable to neglect such a prominent part of it. Sokurov does bring in the modern day visitors into the movie for a brief moment, but most of the film focuses on czarist Russia and the palace during the time in was inhabited.

While Vertov assumes the role of the innovator, cutting back and forth through images of a society rapidly becoming more active as the film progresses, Sokurov attempts to slow the pace down and bring society back to its “roots”. The only trouble with that is that Sokurov in fact only covers the elite of Russian society, and thus impersonates the same sort of attitude Vertov and his counterparts were trying to throw out the window. What follows in the opening sequence of Russian Ark is the camera going after a group of young czarist officers and their dates as they search for the great ballroom. At some point the narrator becomes astonished with what he is seeing and says “Has all this been staged for me…am I expected to play a role?” (II. 0:04:41-0:04:49). The obvious answer to that would be yes. The narrator, who is himself a part of the audience, like us, is expected to take part in the making of the film as we walk through the Hermitage. The need Sokurov expresses for active participation of the audience in the film is curiously something Vertov also displays in the very first images in Man with the Movie Camera; The first few minutes of Vertov’s film concentrate of preparations for watching a movie (III.00:01:30- 00:04:14)- it begins with the camera man adjusting his camera, goes on to show an empty movie theatre, then moves to the projectionist’s room to show him preparing the projector, the orchestra awaits in silence, the chairs are being unfolded, the audience is being let in and then we are able to begin the film when the music begins (curiously enough the “real” film starts with a shot going into a window. Russian Ark ends with a shot going out of a window looking onto a turbulent sea). Vertov is preparing us, in a way, to enter the world of the film in the same way that Sokurov does in the beginning of Russian Ark. Both men make a conscious decision to show that they are not hidden puppet masters (evident by Sokurov’s choice to do the narration by himself). They accept the idea that a film’s purpose is to create an illusion, be it a travel through time into the 1800’s (albeit “real time” as is the case with Sokurov), or the illusions of “magic tricks” generated by editing and film developing mastery. The premise of both directors in the same in that an audience should be aware that it is about to witness an illusion, but be open to embrace it and accept it. It is intriguing, in that way, that both opening sequences focus so much on gaze, who is watching who and what are they watching- the Kino-eye ever present. Both directors put an emphasis on the voyeuristic nature of film as an art form, demonstrating contrasting beliefs as to what purpose this art should serve, and what kind of stories it should strive to tell. But ultimately, are these two movies actually trying to tell stories after all? Or are they just there to keep the audience in the realm of the illusion?

Vertov’s whole purpose is experimentation-as stated in the first and only inter titles in the beginning of Man with the Movie Camera. Sokurov’s purpose is also experimentation in a way- he wanted to see if it was possible to shoot a feature length film in one continuous shot. If the premise of both films is experimentation, then how much room is there for actual context? I believe the answer is in the eye. Sokurov chooses to exclude the Soviet past from his film by saying his eyes see nothing, and Vertov opens his cine-eye to show us what a fledgling Soviet society is up to. Both films, for me, are an exploration of Russian identity at a critical time in history. Vertov released Man with a Movie Camera in 1929, barely a decade after the revolution. During that time a whole new generation of new Soviets has been born, not knowing the cultural history of the imperial past. Vertov’s movie is anexperimentation with the possibilitiesof filmmaking in the technical realm, yes, but it is much more instrumental in creating the type of Soviet propaganda such as Eisensteins October (1927). The images of a constantly producing, active society, along with the prolific rhythm of the film suggest a constant advancement forward, it shows the audience it carefully invited into this world that the future holds good promise, and that the road there is through the Kino-eye. In comparison, Sokurov’s film is released at right in the beginning of the Putin era “a moment when Russia’s image in the world had shrunk from its prominence during the era of Gorbachev and Yeltsin to an impoverished repertoire of brutal border wars and rapacious neo-capitalism.” (Beumers, 244) Sokurov then actively takes on the task of rebuilding Russian identity in the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union. And in stark contrast to Vertov, he does this by showing us images of the past, not of the present. The curious thing about this is that like Vertov, Sokurov also makes this with a promise of a bright (albeit represented by a stormy waters) future with the last words in the film, saying “We are destined to sail forever. To live forever.” (II. 01:33:12-01.33:20) Sokurov essentially acknowledges that through the recognition of Russia’s imperial past, through the re-instatement of its importance into the post-Soviet psyche, he can re-affirm the meaning of Russian identity. For Sokurov, and Vertov, film symbolizes a way for a society to guarantee its own future, and the technological advances demonstrated by both filmmakers are just new vehicles, arks if you may, with which to carry an audience further into the illusion.

These two films embody the evolution of Russian film and it's cyclical nature from it's inception. One can find elements in Sokurov's work which make it seem as though he is trying to harken back to a period where the aristocracy was the main subject of the film, as is the case with Evgeny Bauer's films. But at the same time he borrows elements from the type of cinema which is supposed to be the antithesis of Bauer- Vertovian cinema. While Sokurov may not admit it himself, Russian Ark manages to bring in elements from the entirety of Russian history, even if reluctantly so. 


Works Cited

I. In One Breath. Dir. Knut Elstermann. Perf. Alexander Sokurov. Egoli Tossell Film AG & Hermitage Bridge Studio, 2003. DVD.

 II. Russian Ark. Dir. Alexander Sokurov. Perf. Sergei Dreiden, Alexander Sokurov. Hermitage Bridge Studio, 2002. DVD.

III. Man with a Movie Camera. Dir. Dziga Vertov. Kino International, 1928. Online.

 IV. Hashamova, Yana. Pride and Panic: Russian Imagination of the West in Post-Soviet Film. Bristol: Intellect, 2007. Print.

VI. Beumers, Birgit, and Serge? Bodrov. The Cinema of Russia and the Former Soviet Union. London: Wallflower, 2007. Print.