IF NOTHING ELSE, Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark is the world's greatest museum infomercial. After viewing the audacious, single-take 96-minute movie (which runs Friday, Feb. 7 through Thursday, Feb. 13 at the Varsity), you'll immediately want to visit the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and its famous art collection. You've never seen anything like Ark, shot with one digital-video camera wielded by the German cinematographer Tilman Bttner (Run Lola Run) and spanning some four centuries of Russian history.
Ark is a lavish, nostalgic picture about a contemporary movie director who travels back through time, finding himself in the imperial Winter Palace of the early 18th century. (Historical eras and figures then change with the rooms.) The camera lens provides his POV as giddy aristocrats gather in their finest attire for a sumptuous ball, and he passes invisibly through the throng, musing to us in voice-over.
The one guy who can see him is a 19th-century French marquis (another time traveler), with whom he carries on a periodic dialogue on how Russia does and doesn't fit in with Europe. It's an old, thorny debate (Westernizers vs. Slavophiles), and the marquis is little more than an annoying straw man with a bad perm. He's also a highly unconventional museum guide, stopping to sniff the oil paintings (to the horror of the gallery attendants, who probably expect him to next lick the canvas).
Fortunately, Ark sweeps through this pedantic political and art-appreciation stuff thanks to Bttner's relentless camera. Though we see the doomed Romanovs having tea in their own home, knowing they'll soon be machine-gunned by Lenin, Bttner's amazing steadicam—which deserves a special Oscar—never lingers long enough for pathos or boredom. It swirls and whirls and probes and dances until finally joining a delirious 1913 ballroom sequence.
The effect is like live theater of the highest order. Yet Ark is also pure cinema, unblemished by a single edit. It's an elegy for the splendor of czarist Russia, but Ark's very seamlessness becomes a final and convincing metaphor. For Sokurov, within the Hermitage's magic walls, past and present are eternally united.