The single-shot movieby Mark Cousins / July 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
I first came across the name Alexander Sokurov in an almost empty cinema in wintry Berlin in 1995. I was there to see a five-hour documentary film called Spiritual Voices, shot over a period of one and a half years on the battle front of the Tajikistan civil war. The lights went down and a trance-like elegy for dead and dying soldiers unspooled. Not one of the clich?s of war appeared on screen. It had a 19th-century sensibility and the intensity of silent cinema. Shots lasted for minutes. The dust of the desert seemed to enter the camera. The year after my Berlin revelation, Sokurov released an even better film. Mother and Son was a 73-minute chamber piece about the last weeks, days and moments of a frail old woman and her attentive son, who feeds her with a bottle and carries her into the fields so that she can see the sky. Filmed in slow-motion, shot with glass and mirrors in front of and around the lens, some of which were painted on with a fine Chinese brush, it led Paul Schrader, writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, to describe it as “a new form of spiritual cinema.” The musician Nick Cave saw it and described what happened: “Ten minutes in, I started crying and continued to do so for the rest of the film. I can’t remember crying so hard, without a pause.” When the son carries her outside, the mother gasps for air, looks to the swollen skies, hears a thunderclap and says “Is there anyone up there?” When she dies, a butterfly lands on her D?rer-like hands. Mother and Son captures the glowing pantheism of one of the greatest Soviet films, Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth. Sokurov’s next film, Moloch, about Hitler’s coterie at Berchtesgaten, is shot as if through pea soup and features an inane F?hrer moaning about his health and a twittery Eva Braun. It was aesthetically astonishing, although I felt it unforgivable that Sokurov’s Hitler is clearly unaware of the existence of the gas chambers. Two years later, Taurus was a parallel portrait of a dying Lenin. In another greeny-blue monotone we see the dying of the light of a lost idealist. It conveys an overwhelming sense of coming storm, especially when Stalin visits the old man. In Cannes last month was Alexander Sokurov’s latest film. A rumour had spread that Russian Ark was filmed in one single shot. Things are so hazy in Cannes that there wasn’t time to absorb what this meant. We were simply keen to see “the new Sokurov.” But when it started, we saw a film better than Spiritual Voices, Mother and Son or Taurus. We saw a milestone in film history. Russian Ark is about the Hermitage Museum in Sokurov’s adopted city of St Petersburg. It is 90 minutes long and comprises “one single breath,” as the director calls it. Throughout the history of cinema, directors have dreamed of making a film without editing, but the limited duration of a film magazine has made this impossible. In Rope, Alfred Hitchcock simulated a single-shot film by shooting huge swathes of choreographed action then tracking behind a wall or a person, changing film magazines, then tracking on as if there had been no pause. Latterly, directors have experimented with longer, more meditative ways of filming, but the most modern videotapes can only store 46 minutes or so of complex audiovisual material. Sokurov’s solution was to store his “single breath” neither on film nor tape but on an uncompressed hard disk, which could hold up to 100 minutes. He wanted one choreographed movement to take us through 1,300 metres of the Hermitage’s rooms, including the winter palace where the October revolution took place, and through four epochs of Russian history. Travelling with the camera would be a European stranger (played by Sergey Dreiden), a kind of civilised minstrel. He would argue with the camera and the off screen, half-awake half-dreaming voice of Russia itself. On their journey through history, they would encounter Catherine the Great, Nicholas the First and Second, cavaliers, museum officials, spies, great balls and portents of the horrors to come. This scenario could have been a bit like a Blue Peter history segment, but is so vivid and delicate as to be profoundly moving. It required six months of rehearsal, 867 actors, hundreds of extras, three live orchestras and 22 assistant directors. Thirty-three galleries containing Rembrandts and da Vincis had to be lit to allow 360-degree camera movements. For various reasons, filming had to take place on 23rd December. There are only four hours of daylight in St Petersburg at that time of year. The single shot would take one and a half of those hours. Worse, the 100-minute hard disk could not be wiped to start again. Imagine the tension as Sokurov and cameraman Tilman Buttner (who shot Run Lola Run) began their take. Nearly 1,000 people must hit their marks. There must be no technical or human faults. Five minutes into the filming, something went wrong. They had to restart. Only 95 minutes left. Five minutes into the restart, something else went wrong. Just 90 minutes of disk time remained, for a 90-minute film. They started their third take and an hour and a half later, cinema history had been made. Like Nick Cave, I cried and cried.