Touring the Hermitage via Russian Ark

I just finished watching a fascinating film about the Hermitage.

The Hermitage you ask? What is the Hermitage?

Sadly many westerners have never heard of this phenomenal St. Petersburg museum despite it being one of the very best in the world, behind only the Louvre and the British Museum.

The Hermitage disappeared from the cultural radar because it was locked behind the Iron Curtain in Leningrad for so many years. Now that communism has fallen, it is much easier to actually visit. Unfortunately, the museum still remains rather anonymous to many of us in the West.

Fortunately, Russian director Alexander Sokurov has composed a visual masterpiece, Russian Ark, which now brings the museum to your living room. The story follows the character of Astolphe-Louis-Léonor, Marquis de Custine, who seems to have passed away and is now roaming the halls of the Hermitage. Custine was a French aristocrat who visited Russia in the early 19th century and wrote a book about it entitled Empire of the Czar: A Journey Through Eternal Russia.

His character in Russian Ark takes the viewer on a grand tour of the famous museum, passing through different galleries at different periods of time in Russian history and interacting with famous historical figures. We see Catherine the Great (back when the Hermitage was her Winter Palace), a few of the Czars, some concerned comrades during Stalinist times, and a hodgepodge of others that eventually make up a cast of over 800 people featured in the film, all in various period dress.

What’s truly amazing about the film is that entire thing was shot in one 90 minute take. Once the camera turned on, it followed Custine for the next hour and a half without a single cut or edit.

The movie is visually stunning and provides a wonderful glimpse into the treasures of the Hermitage and the opulence of the Winter Palace. Unfortunately, it’s horribly slow at times and rather esoteric as well. It is still very much worth 90 minutes of your life, however–especially if you don’t plan on visiting Russia any time soon.