Russian Ark (Russkij Kovcheg) (2002)
Main Menu Audio & Animation
Audio Commentary-Jens Maurer (Producer)
Audio Commentary-Dr Barbara Creed (Film Theorist)
Featurette-Making Of-In One Breath
Featurette-Museum Of Memory - Illustrated Lecture
Trailer-Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, Amandla!, Swing
|Year Of Production||2002|
|RSDL / Flipper||RSDL (38:49)||Cast & Crew|
|Region Coding||1,2,3,4,5,6||Directed By||Aleksandr Sokurov|
|Pan & Scan/Full Frame||None||
Russian Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
Russian Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 (448Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 (448Kb/s)
|Widescreen Aspect Ratio||1.78:1|
|Video Format||576i (PAL)|
|Original Aspect Ratio||1.85:1||Miscellaneous|
|Annoying Product Placement||No|
|Action In or After Credits||No|
"Everyone can see the future, but no-one remembers the past."
"Don't I have the right to dream a little?"
"We are free, you and I. Dream away..."
The short version of this review?:
Quite simply, Wow.
The slightly longer version? Read on...
When I am asked by my family or friends why I am so passionate about cinema, I usually always give the same answer: for me, cinema represents the ultimate, most complex form of art to which mankind has so far been able to aspire. When done well, no other art form can match cinema for its ability to express ideas as directly, emotionally, convincingly, with such realism and with such attention to detail. Every now and again a certain director or a certain film comes along to reaffirm this conviction. Russian Ark is such an achievement - pure art.
This is a truly revolutionary film in many respects. The principal point of differentiation with this film is that the whole 90-minute movie has been shot in one single, continuous, unedited take. This is the first time that such a feat has ever been achieved in the history of motion pictures. Up until Russian Ark, the record held for the longest single continuous take ever committed to film was 10 minutes, being the limitation imposed by the capacity of a conventional 35mm film magazine. This record was notably held by Alfred Hitchcock in his 1948 film Rope (which was shot to try to look like a single 80-minute take, but was in fact a cleverly edited series of 8 different ten-minute cuts). The 10-minute record was also approached by a small handful of film-makers of the modern era bold enough to attempt such an effort without losing their audience; this elite group includes Robert Altman in his brilliant satire The Player, whose opening scene of nearly 10 minutes length deliberately pays homage to Hitchcock and to others exploring the artistic boundaries of the very long take. But how was revolutionary Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov able to achieve in Russian Ark what no other director had been able to achieve before him in the past? He abandoned the limitations of 35mm film and turned to modern technology, shooting the movie instead on high definition digital video. (It needed to be high definition digital video in order to have even a hope of being comparable to film in quality - noting that the finished movie had to be transferred from its native digital format to film in order to be shown as a feature film theatrically.) But even then, the limitations of even the most modern high definition digital video cameras have inherent recording limitations that preclude the recording of a single uninterrupted 90-minute sequence. So a special-purpose portable digital hard drive unit then had to be designed and built, to achieve the dual goals of recording for this length whilst still giving the camera complete freedom of movement, as is necessary in order to make an interesting feature film. It was only as recently as within the last 2 years that all this amazing technology had developed to the point of making a single 90-minute take even conceivable, let alone starting to think about and tackle all the logistical problems necessary to design, plan and execute such a mammoth undertaking. Even now that it has been done, and even watching it again and again with the benefit of additional crew interviews and behind-the-scenes footage to gain an appreciation of how the movie was shot, the logistics behind this achievement are simply mind-boggling.
But for all of this amazing use of new technology and its success at planning and logistics, Russian Ark could still very easily have been an abysmal flop had it not also been an interesting film to watch and had something to say. Moreover, a film involving no edits at all would in fact have to work a lot harder than any other conventional film has ever done in the past if it is to have any hope at all of holding its audience's attention for such a long period. Testimony to the talents of director Aleksandr Sokurov, German cinematographer Tilman Büttner, and the cast and crew, Russian Ark does this. This is not technology for technology's sake. What we have here on screen is a fluid style of filming that suits the mood and feel of the film, and features a leading actor and supporting cast of enough talent to acquit themselves and convey the messages the director wanted to convey. What's more, the themes involved are of such enchantment and conveyed with such direct emotional integrity that the end result is simply mesmerising - cinema as high art.
The film opens with a black screen and the voice-over of a narrator (the voice of the director himself) musing, as if to himself still in a dream, that he has just opened his eyes but can't remember what happened to him. As an image appears in front of us and the camera begins to move seemingly of its own free will, it is apparent that we are in fact looking through the eyes of our unseen Russian narrator, also unclear at first where we are or what we are doing here, but also drawn along inexorably with the narrator to follow the events unfolding in front of us. Out of a carriage step several exquisitely-dressed ladies and gentlemen in fine early 18th century costume, including ball gowns, clearly in the mood for a party, although who they are and what the occasion is we have no idea. We follow the guests in from the cold into a building to find many more guests talking and milling around. Like an invisible gate-crasher, we continue to enter the scene, following the guests downstairs until we meet a well-dressed man in black. This stranger (Sergei Dontsov) speaks to us without introducing himself. Like our narrator, we find he too has just arrived, not sure where he is yet and wandering around as if in a dream. As the film unfolds we gradually learn that the stranger is an 18th century French marquis (aristocrat) and this French marquis becomes our guide as we explore the wonders of the State Hermitage Museum/Winter Palace of St Petersburg. (The narrator refers to the marquis as "Europe", and being a European outsider to St Petersburg he is symbolic of European culture generally.) Together with the marquis we explore images, scenes, emotions and ghosts of the past 300 years of Russian history. The story evolves in a non-linear fashion and as we wander around from room to room we encounter not only key historical figures of the past, living out their lives in these very rooms, but also a mixture of real-life and symbolic modern day visitors to the museum.
The Hermitage Museum is one of the largest and most beautiful museums in the world today, boasting some 2,700,000 works of art in a complex of 5 separate palace buildings (The Winter Palace). The museum has a special place in Russian culture, being a monument to Russian history and an embodiment of the art collections and culture not just of Russia, but of Europe. The Hermitage itself is treated by director Sokurov as an evolved landscape of ideas and dreams that is a tangible character of the film. Together with our cynical French marquis we are guided through both the rooms of Russian history in The Winter Palace and the various art collections of the museum proper, many of which are met by the scorn of our French guide for their lack of Russian nationalism and blatant copying of other European arts.
Famous historical figures we encounter in the hallowed halls of The Winter Palace include:
Apart from these key historical people and events, we also come across numerous other characters, including the real-life director of the Museum Mikhail Piotrovski (and, in a bizarre dream-like scene, a conversation taking place between him and his father and grandfather), real-life friends of director Sokurov and several other modern-day visitors to the museum, as they interact with the marquis. Other key characters also include a mysterious Russian spy who constantly lurks in the background and tags the marquis since he enters the building (a "real life detail", as foreigner visitors such as the marquis would have been followed around) and the appearance of several angels, both real-life angels dancing in the corridors and various angels in the art works we stop to admire.
As we wander through Russian history and culture with our scornful European guide, we enjoy a frank exchange between the marquis and the narrator. In return for the marquis' jibes about the backwards nature of Russian culture, the narrator (director Sokurov) enjoys making fun of him as the outsider, but at the same time craves his opinions as an outsider - a very Russian notion/dance. Russian Ark is essentially an outsider's view then, both in terms of nationality and time, of what collective Russian art/history means. In Sokurov's own words: "It's not only a work about the connections between Russian and European culture and history. It's also a film about an encounter between two characters, two world views. It's a very interesting and a very ugly encounter. It's a symbol for Russia's attraction to, and love for Europe, and for a certain coldness towards Russia on the part of Europe, unfortunately."
The point of this film is to bring what may be viewed by many in modern society as boring/dead pieces of art and culture in a stuffy museum to life, by ascribing them animation, association and relevance to human evolution. Sokurov is telling us that culture is an ark that keeps us living. Now more than ever, the Hermitage Museum needs saving. Further, as the very final (digitally enhanced) scene makes clear to us when we look out of the Hermitage at an imaginary surrounding sea, the Hermitage is a sheltering ark, floating along the icy waters of history. This idea of the Museum as an ark has associations with both the biblical Ark (just like Noah's Ark, this place symbolically holds the blueprint for human life and culture), and also the Ark of the Covenant (the Ark of the Israelites, an ark to hold safe and secure the history of some of the most significant objects of human culture). "We are destined to sail forever. To Live forever." An intelligently conceived and sobering metaphor indeed.
Russian Ark was, at its heart, a simple and very moving ideal that just so happened to be tremendously difficult (if not thought to be impossible) to execute. For its ability to push the technical boundaries of film-making to hitherto unthinkable directions, Russian Ark is almost without parallel -a veritable Citizen Kane of our time. For its sheer audacity of logistical scale, size of cast and crew required and amount of pre-production planning necessary, this film is a modern-day Ben-Hur. For its intelligence and treatment of subject matter and pure emotional impact of ideas conveyed, this is cinema as art of the order of the Three Colours trilogy.
The transfer is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is 16x9 enhanced. This is close enough to the original/theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 not to matter.
It is stated with authority on the Russian Ark publicity website that this newest Sony HD video camera technology allowed the director to obtain a picture of "almost the same quality level as a conventional 35mm film camera". And they are right... provided you don't gloss over that word "almost". Certainly the image quality is nothing short of spectacular for a video-based technology in terms of its clarity, however it is not as good as film. The transfer we see on this DVD displays ample foreground resolution, beautifully so for many mid-shots and close-ups, sometimes to the point of questioning are we really watching video-sourced material? And whilst background images also display a more than sufficient amount of detail to be pleasing, there is an overall softness to the image resolution in this transfer that you simply can't escape, particularly so with some wide shots. Have a look at Chapter 18 (The St George Hall) or Chapter 25 (The Great Nicholas Hall) and you will see what I mean. This is not to say that background resolution is poor, mind - indeed, far from it - just to say that a limitation of this digital video camera technology (compared to film) lies in its inability to achieve film-like clarity across great depths of field. Of course, the constraints of both the lighting and focus pulling environments also come into play too, and whilst I loudly applaud the efforts of both the cinematographer and crew with both aspects (especially lighting; how the hell was Tilman Büttner able to light every single room so effectively and unobtrusively?) if you want to be picky there are a few instances where the focus pulling is just a bit off or is marginally slow (perfectly understandable when you remember the focus-puller was running around behind Büttner and crowded around a very tiny monitor - it is a testimony to the crew's skill that the whole film isn't a complete mess!).
The filming took place in great extremes of lighting/contrast, ranging from relatively bright outside daylight, to brightly lit rooms sharing both natural and artificial light, right down to the traversing of very dark confined corridors and stairways, lit in some cases by nothing but candle light. It is understandable then that resolution in the DVD transfer drops appreciably in these darker scenes. See for best examples parts of Chapter 2 and Chapter 3, where the marquis descends into and then ascends back from the underground palace rooms of Peter The Great. Shadow detail here, whilst very good indeed for video, evidences limitations of the source medium. As we are not watching film here, there is no 'film grain' to talk of as such. However, the corresponding nasty in the video world is noise, and noise is naturally visible in these isolated very low-light scenes. It should be stressed however that 99% of the transfer is virtually devoid of any noise, leaving the image relatively crisp and a pleasure to watch, being only restricted by the overall softness in resolution and shortcomings in depth of field and focus which is unavoidable from the digital video technology and the difficult filming conditions, as discussed above.
Colour is excellent, again belying the fact that we are watching a video source. There is a beautiful, wide colour palette on offer in the film, partly achieved by the cinematographer in camera and partly achieved by the director opting for a liberal use of digital grading in post production. Colours range from the frosty blues of the opening outdoor scene, to amber hues in The St George Hall, to deep reds in the Rubens Room, to greens in The Tent Hall, to pastels in The Portrait Gallery Of The Romanov Family, to a pageant of colours in the Grand Ball of The Great Nicholas Hall. All colours are beautifully rendered and adequately saturated, with no colour bleeding issues. If colours appear a little subdued in some scenes (and they do on occasion), I would say that this is a deliberate intention on the part of the director, using digital grading techniques in post production. Skin tones remain spot on throughout.
There are no MPEG artefacts to note. Madman Entertainment has handled this DVD transfer very well. The transfer boasts a consistently high data transfer bitrate, often lingering up around the maximum 10 Mb/s and with the average bit rate over the feature being 6.7 Mb/s (marginally higher it would seem than the Region 1 NTSC transfer). Film-to-video artefacts (in this context meaning "source-to-video artefacts") are virtually non-existent, excepting some very very minor instances of near-aliasing outbreaks on the finer lines of some costumes and room furnishings. There are also some motion artefacts troubling some of the quicker room pans, but this is largely unavoidable watching such quick pans on an interlaced video setup. (If you are lucky enough to be able to watch this DVD using a progressive setup, then the slight juddering motion artefacts in pans will not be troublesome. Note that the source recording was also progressive video, HD1080p.) Film artefacts (here meaning "source artefacts") are completely non existent, apart from the limitations to resolution and focus as discussed separately above.
The English subtitle stream is a very clear yellow font; easy to read, well placed and well timed with the dialogue.
This disc is RSDL-formatted, with the layer change occurring at 38:49, just as the marquis is about to open a door. The layer change is thoughtfully placed here (after all, where else can you put it in a movie with no cuts?), but it did take my Toshiba player a good half-second to negotiate this layer point, which meant it was a bit jarring to the film's flow for me.
The DVD contains two audio tracks for the feature, being Russian Dolby Digital 5.1 (encoded at the higher data rate of 448 Kb/s) and Russian Dolby Digital 2.0 (at 224Kb/s). The 5.1 track is the default track and the one I reviewed.
Dialogue quality is excellent. The dialogue delivery is always clear and crisp, right down to the barely-audible mutters and sighs of our French guide. Strangely, the dialogue in this 5.1 mix is delivered via the left and right front mains, rather than the centre channel, but still this is not problematic at all and unless you make a point of going right up to the speakers to listen you might not notice that it is not coming out of the centre channel. (Indeed, if your speakers are correctly calibrated you should enjoy a phasing that creates a "phantom" centre speaker anyway.)
Note that this entire movie had to be, by necessity, ADR'd, in order to blank out the director's and crew's voices as they constantly advise and coax the cinematographer and run the scheduling. The ADR and final sound mixing is, if anything, perhaps just a little too perfect and unnatural on occasion (see surround discussion below), but despite this, the audio sync is generally fine, excepting only the odd very minor instances where the timing of certain dialogue delivery from background extras appears to wander marginally from their lip sync.
The original music for this feature is provided by Russian composer Sergei Yevtushenko, and supplemented by pieces from, among others, Tchaikovsky and an extract from an opera by Purcell. Three different orchestras were used in Russian Ark, with the largest and most prominent for the final Grand Ball sequence being the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, conducted by Valery Gergiev. The music is superb. I will certainly be tracking down this soundtrack CD. This music is food for the soul. It will have you pondering the mood in the Rubens room and soaring the heights of the Grand Ball. The audio transfer on the DVD delivers with its clarity across the range and a 5.1 mix that provides ample breathing space for the orchestration to swell around the room.
Apart from just helping out with the music score, the surround presence and activity in this mix is just great. The surrounds are used constantly and very effectively to sustain a truly immersive sound environment, even if only subtly at times. The principal use of the surrounds is for room ambience and echoes. Every step of the marquis' shoes across the polished floor boards echoes across the soundstage and all manner of visitors and actors can be heard talking in the background as the camera keeps moving and rotating. Wonderful stuff.
The only problem with this mix is that the dubbing of some sound effects (and occasionally the placement of ADR'd voices) is a little unnatural. Sometimes we start to hear sound effects spilling over to the rears when they are clearly still placed directly in front of us (11:46), or hear the voices of people in the next room proceeding to envelop us a touch too soon before we've fully walked into the room (23:08). While I'm at it being picky, I'll also point out a very brief (split second only) audio dropout in the left front speaker at 21.25, as well as the tendency for a small amount of audio hiss to creep in to the mix as sounds are layered on certain occasions (listen to 43:30 and 58:10 for example). But these are all petty issues in what is otherwise a truly great use of the surround channels and a great audio mix in general.
The subwoofer gets little to do for a good majority of this feature, understandably for a dialogue-driven reminiscent piece. However the sub does come alive admirably when it is called upon, for example to help fill out the bottom end of the orchestral instruments during the Grand Ball.
|Surround Channel Use|
Dr Creed heads the cinema studies programme at the University of Melbourne. This audio commentary, along with another featurette extra below, was recorded specially by Madman to provide additional insight from an Australian perspective, and full marks for going to this extra effort. Dr Creed's commentary is by nature more general and provides an informative overview of film-making styles generally, and aspects of them as they applied to Russian Ark specifically. This provides us with a step-back from listening to those directly involved in the project and an analysis from a independent film critic's perspective. It makes for very interesting listening.
Featurette: "In One Breath": The Making of Russian Ark (43:29)
Provided in 1.78:1 video, not 16x9 enhanced, and Dolby Digital 2.0 audio, this meaty featurette is perhaps the best extra on the disc and certainly the best extra to start with. It includes lengthy interview sequences with the director, cinematographer, producers and others, all providing their own unique insights into what the project was about and the how it was conceived and executed. The interview sequences with director Sokurov in particular are fascinating, as he articulates the role of the principal characters and the principal themes he wanted to convey. Interview sequences are also provided with film critics giving an overview of what they derived from the film. It is a very well-constructed documentary, providing invaluable insight and understanding into what was after all a very complex piece of art.
Featurette: "Museum of Memory Illustrated Lecture" (44:49)
Provided in 1.78:1 video, 16x9 enhanced, and Dolby Digital 2.0 audio, this is the second additional extra recorded by Madman to provide an Australian analysis of the film. This lecture was given by University of Melbourne senior lecturer Dr Christopher Marshall. Dr Marshall is an art and cultural historian and museum expert and his lecture addresses the following questions/issues: 1/ what is the relevance and significance of museums to contemporary society?, 2/ what is the significance of museums of the past, specifically, and 3/ with this background, Dr Marshall provides a detailed walk-through and discussion of the path taken through the Hermitage by the Russian Ark characters. Whilst the first half of this lecture is a bit dry, it sets up a good understanding necessary to interpret what is, ultimately, the message being conveyed by the director. The second half of the lecture, with its detailed room-by-room walk-through of the Winter Palace/Hermitage Museum rooms and their historical significance, is fascinating. In this lecture you will learn even more not only about the film, but also an appreciation of the historical context surrounding this amazing museum and its founders.
Theatrical Trailer (2:11)
Presented in 1.78:1 video, not enhanced, and Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. After seeing the pristine presentation of the feature, the quality of this theatrical trailer was a big disappointment, being plagued by an atrocious film artefact - a scratch running down the frame, just left of centre, for the duration of the trailer. (If anything though, this film artefact only goes to highlight how much better it is seeing this film on DVD, with the digital source transferred directly to a digital medium.) There is also bad audio hiss throughout this trailer. Still, despite the quality issues, it is great to see how the film was promoted in cinemas and so this is a nice inclusion as an extra.
3 internet addresses provided for: the Russian Ark publicity site, the Hermitage Museum site, and Madman Entertainment's site.
3 unrelated DVD trailers. I do not count this as an extra.
NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.
In comparison to the Region 1 release, the Region 4 version misses out on:
In comparison to the Region 2 release, the Region 4 version misses out on:
HOWEVER, note that in comparison to both the Region 4 and Region 1 releases, the Region 2 release shoots itself in the foot completely:
Note also that in comparison to the new Region 4 release, both Regions 1 and 2 now miss out on:
It would have been nice if Region 4 had received the additional featurette documentary "Mon Paradis, Der Winterpalast", or the Sokurov short film "Hubert Robert – A Fortunate Life". However it would appear that the additional audio commentary and lecture featurette we receive in Region 4 more than makes up by value the former of these two omissions, and the latter is only an unrelated short anyway, and more just in the "nice to see" category than anything to cry over. Similarly, the filmographies screens and production notes that the other regions receive is no major loss.
You can make up your own mind with this one, but I am calling this a Region 4 winner, given our extras package appears to offer, on balance, better all-round value and insight.
Madman has done an admirable job in bringing this important work to DVD. The transfer direct from digital source to DVD makes for a video transfer that is near flawless, constrained only by minor limitations of the recording. The audio transfer boasts a wonderful surround mix that enables the music and the emotion to stir. The extras package is plentiful and with a detailed making of documentary and two audio commentaries it facilitates a much deeper understanding of the work than can be gained by watching the movie alone.
I now have a new entrant in my list of top 10 DVDs.
|DVD||Toshiba 2109, using Component output|
|Display||Toshiba 117cm widescreen rear projection TV. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum/AVIA. This display device is 16x9 capable.|
|Audio Decoder||Yamaha RXV-1000. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum/AVIA.|
|Amplification||Elektra Theatre 150 Watts x 6 channel Power Amplifier|
|Speakers||Orpheus Aurora III mains, Orpheus Centaurus 1.0 centre, Velodyne CT150 sub and B&W DM303 rears|