A 19th century French aristocrat, notorious for his scathing memoirs about life in Russia, travels through the Russian State Hermitage Museum and encounters historical figures from the last 200+ years.
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Third part in Aleksandr Sokurov's quadrilogy of Power, following Moloch (1999) and Taurus (2001), focuses on Japanese Emperor Hirohito and Japan's defeat in World War II when he is finally confronted by General Douglas MacArthur who offers him to accept a diplomatic defeat for survival.
An unseen man regains consciousness, not knowing who or where he is. No one seems to be able to see him, except the mysterious man dressed in black. He eventually learns through their discussions that this man is a 19th century French aristocrat, who he coins the "European". This turn of events is unusual as the unseen man has a knowledge of the present day. The two quickly learn that they are in the Winter Palace of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the European who has a comprehensive knowledge of Russian history to his time. As the two travel through the palace and its grounds, they interact with people from various eras of Russian history, either through events that have happened at the palace or through the viewing of artifacts housed in the museum. Ultimately, the unseen man's desired journey is to move forward, with or without his European companion. Written by
If you like visiting the homes of the formerly high and mighty, or have a passion for museums, this film ought to satisfy. It's really a virtual tour of the Hermitage Museum (the former Winter Palace) in St Petersburg but with 2800 actors and extras in full costume to add a little verisimilitude to the occasion. (If you want to repeat the experience for free visit the Hermitages' brilliant web site). I can believe that the whole 90 minutes was filmed in one take (at the third attempt) but I was staggered that the museum authorities allowed them to do it. Perhaps the clincher was to include a role for the present museum director who is seen with some of his predecessors fretting over the state of the Tsar's throne's upholstery.
Not knowing a lot of Russian history, some of the scenes didn't make much sense, but I did cotton on to Anastasia being late for tea. Maybe she got away after all. There was nothing from the Soviet era, except a brief scene during the German siege of Lenningrad (a million died, mainly from starvation, and many made coffins for themselves before they expired). This seems appropriate, since the communists contributed nothing to the buildings, which were started by Peter the Great and added to by his successors. A bad fire in 1837 was followed by extensive reconstruction and many of the rooms we see in the film date from that time.
I suppose this is the first film in which the set is the star and the actors merely props. There is in fact one dramatic part, that of the French Marquis who attended the Tsar's court in the 1840s, and who is somehow able to take us backward and forward in time. Even he is a bit two-dimensional, in fact the other, unseen, presence (the voice of the director of the film) is as real.
Towards the end we attend a great ball, and the Marquis gets to dance the Marzurka again. The music is great (is that Glinka conducting something of this own?) and the atmosphere gay (as somebody says `you can't be shy for the Mazurka') and for a moment history is forgotten. But we don't have a plot, the characters are cut-outs (with the exception of Catherine who seems to have been one of the more boisterous Empresses in history) and, basically, nothing happens. Yet I found myself absorbed by it all, occasionally wishing I could click my mouse to zoom in on an interesting painting. Ironically, much of the art is non-Russian, so `Russian Ark' is something of a misnomer `Euro-Ark' is nearer the mark. At the end of the day, though, I am lost with admiration for the cinematographer, who managed to keep his digital camera running and pointed in the right direction for 90 minutes without making a mistake. Madness, brilliant Russian madness.
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