We begin behind the scenes, in the theatre designed for Catherine the Great by her neoclassical architect Giacomo Quarenghi and modelled on Palladio's Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza in Italy. We are all cells in that tree and are moving along it. Before that I saw lots of paintings by Rembrandt and El Greco in books."
It's one of the reasons he prefers the art of the Old Masters to that of modernism. In front of El Greco's St Peter and St Paul, the French traveller abuses a young Russian for not knowing the scriptures.
This allows time, experience, to flow unedited and complex on screen: it's not just a technical but an artistic, even philosophical achievement. On the banner of classic art are the words, 'Everything from God.'
"Every time I did the take, or someone else made a mistake, I would curse, and that would have gotten in, so we did the sound later. I tell him how British museums want to be part of a youthful, urban culture. In Sokurov's Russian Ark, nothing is cut, nothing is moved, nothing is reinvented or added at the whim of the all-powerful director. Her casting seems to suggest that art is not only, or necessarily, visual; and Rembrandt, whose art the film stops for, or anyway circles around longest, is the painter who exemplifies this most profoundly. A 19th century French aristocrat, notorious for his scathing memoirs about life in Russia, travels through the Russian State Hermitage Museum …
Objects that were once considered symbols of decadence have become national treasures. "Some start as cleaners and then by steps become curators. "The painting in the Hermitage is so fundamental, it is beyond any discussion," says Sokurov. In fact, it seems to be an inquiry into how to experience great art.
How different from its representation by the revolutionary avant garde 80-odd years ago.
Russian Ark begins in darkness. "This film is not contradicting anything," he says. Working here, she says, disfigures your sense of reality, alienates you from life outside. The world, in my imagination, is like a tree. In fact, the strangeness of Russian Ark, its connoisseurship of time, is an accurate description of what it feels like to visit the Hermitage.
The Winter Palace, built by the 18th-century Baroque genius Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli and restored extravagantly to his designs after the fire of 1837, together with the Small Hermitage that Catherine the Great created as her personal retreat, the Large Hermitage that she built to house her art collection, and the 19th-century New Hermitage that is the only purpose-designed public gallery within the complex, stand along the bank of the river Neva. It is reverently displayed and enraptures the museum's Russian visitors. I am a provincial man, and my first meeting with real paintings was in the Hermitage. The Soviets transferred the seat of government to Moscow. But you won't see them in Russian Ark. Only one - El Greco's St Peter and St Paul - was moved to place it on the route; the rest are as you find them.
It seems to me that those artists who are considered modern classics are to be tested by time yet." Russian Ark is a fluid dream-epic with no special effects. It becomes clear that Sokurov is tired of talking about his film as a technical masterstroke; the method of shooting "is only one of the tools", he says, pained by having to go through it again.
As if to get close to this life distilled in paint, Sokurov films paintings from the side, in normal lighting, so that reflections - as they do - obscure one part of the picture and make the texture of its surface visible.
But if you’re looking for plot or dialog or a consistent time period, nope, not gonna get that.
"The banner of modern art says, 'I want to do this.'
With Sergey Dreyden, Mariya Kuznetsova, Leonid Mozgovoy, Mikhail Piotrovsky.
"Death to the two-headed eagle!/Sever its long-necked head/With a single stroke!" Sokurov is an unapologetic defender of the idea of the museum in its most - superficially - conservative sense.
And because he is interested in encounter rather than information, he lingers on just a few paintings; Rembrandts, a Rubens, a Van Dyck, a Tintoretto.
Cinema, although it has a history of more than a century (and St Petersburg itself is only 300 years old), seems to have no sense of history, of its own history. Rembrandt makes us aware of what Sokurov says is the essence of painting. Then suddenly he sees officers and ladies in 19th-century dress, and the camera that represents him is off on its snaking journey, following these would-be Tsarist revellers into the Hermitage, getting lost, hooking up with a cynical Frenchman from the Romantic era who for the rest of the film acts as his and our psychopomp, travelling, swooping, running, stumbling from room to room, seeing history's weight and frivolity - Catherine the Great running off to piss, a terrifying hint of the siege of Leningrad - and always, like time in Sokurov's image, continuing. You can always imagine you are in this time because the branch of this time is still growing. In a 2002 interview, Büttner said that film sound was recorded separately. "The main criterion in art is time.
Our past hasn't become past yet - the main problem of this country is that we don't know when it will become past."
The light is low in Sokurov's study; the acclaimed director of Mother and Son (1996), Moloch (1999) and now his stunning celebration of the Hermitage museum, Russian Ark, recently had an eye operation. The Hermitage has the same historical thickness that all museums have, but to an infinitely more fermented degree. Everyone makes their own path through this immeasurable museum.
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