Filming Sokurov's Russian Ark: An Interview with
By Louis Menashe
Russian Ark is not what you might readily identify as a film by the Russian master, Alexander Sokurov. The mood of Sokurov cinema, including the many documentaries, "Elegies," and features, is usually dreamy, vaporous, deeply spiritual; the look of his films matches their opaque story lines and the quiet characterizations - spare, gloomy, contemplative. Russian Ark is different; its parts are a movable feast bursting with color and energy and noise, a set of costume mini-dramas full of personality, an anti-Sokurov carnival. And, wondrously, all shot in an hour and a half single video take.
What prompted Sokurov to pull off this stunt, a cinema high-wire act performed in the elegant chambers and galleries of St. Petersburg's Hermitage, where filming is normally forbidden? His answers have ranged from the fatuous to the poetic. I got sick of editing, he is quoted as saying in one interview; I wanted a film that unfolded its subject in a single breath, he said in another. That subject, outwardly, at least, is history, Russian history to be exact, stretching from the time of Peter the Great in the early 18th century to the eve of Romanov demise in 1913, with a reference or two to Soviet times, and some glances at the present. (At one point, the Director of the Hermitage himself, Mikhail Piotrovsky, puts in an anachronistic appearance.)
Sokurov has always had a taste for history, his major at Gorky University, and much of his oeuvre dwells on historical themes. His last two feature films were about Hitler (Moloch, 1999), and Lenin (Taurus, 2001), parts of a projected tetralogy on 20th-century tyrants. In Russian Ark, Sokurov conveys historical episodes and historical figures through a series of brilliantly realized tableaux vivants - here is Peter the Great yanking at the ear of an underling, while Katya, his wife, tries to calm him; there is Catherine the Great applauding a theatrical rehearsal, then running to take a leak; Nicholas I accepts the apologies of the Persian envoy for a massacre at the Russian legation in Teheran; Nicholas II, the last Tsar, supervises his large family at table. Historians of Russia, especially, will have delicious guessing-game fun identifying all the historical dramatis personae Sokurov parades before the viewer: Who was that woman wearing a nun's habit walking with the Tsaritsa Alexandra? Wasn't it Ella, her widowed sister? And why does the Tsaritsa say, "It's all my fault"? She's talking about carrying the fateful genes that gave her son and heir to the throne the dread bleeding sickness, hemophilia. That sailor standing behind the royal family while they dine is Nagorny, the faithful companion to the ailing heir. But where is Rasputin? Is that dandy with curly hair and a dark complexion chasing someone supposed to be Pushkin? Who is that man dressed in black we see stalking the marquis on his journey through the museum? Probably an agent of the "Third Section," Nicholas I's secret police. (He is played by one of Sokurov's favorite actors, the very talented Leonid Mozgovoy, who has incarnated Chekhov in Stone, 1992, as well as Hitler and Lenin.) That Russian diplomat massacred in Teheran, wasn't he the celebrated dramatist Alexander Griboedov?
Non-specialists may have trouble picking out these things. No matter; there is enough visual splendor in the whole show to keep everyone enthralled. Besides, there are the fascinating verbal exchanges between the wandering, opinionated French aristocrat, who is seen, and his soft-spoken foil and companion, who is invisible. The aristocrat is based on Astolphe, marquis de Custine (1790-1857), a writer and traveler with a gift for observation and aphoristic commentary that scholars and journalists have leaned on ever since the publication of his La Russie en 1839 (it has appeared in English in several editions). His stinging remarks have entered the vocabulary of all writers on Russia, Imperial and Soviet: A society "not built on foundations of human dignity;" "Siberia, that indispensable auxiliary of Muscovite civilization;" "I was entering the Empire of Fear;" "Russia is a land of useless formalities;" and, one of his most quoted quips, "The Russian government is an absolute monarchy moderated by assassination." In Russian Ark he is charmingly played, with just the right doses of hauteur and kvetchiness by Sergei Dreiden, who resembles the great Swedish actor, Erland Josephson. The voice of the contemporary figure who mysteriously finds himself accompanying the marquis belongs to Sokurov himself. Many of their exchanges center on the marquis's unwillingness to credit Russians with originality or talent, a position Custine sets forth repeatedly in his book. Their give and take also echoes the age-old debate Russians have tortured themselves with - are we part of European civilization or not? No doubt where the marquis stands: "Rafael is not for you," he sniffs in the film. "Goodbye, Europe," says his companion, ambiguously (sarcastically?) at the end of their promenade - goodbye to the marquis, or to the great European treasures collected in the Hermitage?
Another of Sokurov's passions, of course, is art, and the Hermitage was a natural for locating his pageant of Russian history. The film was thus also a way of paying homage to the ineffable works hanging on its walls, many of which come into view. Sokurov seems to have had a similar intent when he set out on another film journey, the haunting documentary, Elegy of a Voyage (2001) - in some ways foreshadowing Russian Ark -- which carried him across European borders from Russia to Holland, where he lovingly settled in at a "Dutch Ark," Rotterdam's Boijmans Museum. So perhaps Russian history here is really Sokurov's way of meditating on the Hermitage's eternal art, and not the other way around. As history, after all, Russian Ark is rather incomplete, just a slice of it, a group portrait of a narrow stratum at the top; there are no peasants or proletarians here. And that group of bejeweled ladies and dashing, caparisoned officers, and the last Tsar and his whole family is marked for doom, even as they dance to Glinka's mazurka at a grand, joyous, spectacularly filmed ball in that dazzling penultimate scene. Above the music, though, you could almost hear the Great October Socialist Revolution crashing at the gates of the Winter Palace. But the unsinkable Russian Ark and its precious cargo will survive.
In the end, for all of its engrossing overt and latent themes, Russian Ark is a towering achievement of cinematography. (The irony: Sokurov, the spiritual filmmaker, is impresario to a bit of technical wizardry.) For helping realize that achievement, credit belongs to the Steadicam, and to its operator here, Tilman Buttner. Buttner, who handled the Steadicam for Tom Tykwer's popular Run, Lola, Run (1997), was born in 1961 in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), and graduated from the Konrad Wolf School of Cinema and TV in Potsdam, 1988. He worked for East German television until the Berlin Wall came down, after which he and some colleagues organized the production company, Kopp Film. (A good account of the technical aspects of filming Russian Ark is the article, "Tour de Force," by Jean Oppenheimer in American Cinematographer, January 2003.) Cineaste spoke to Tilman Buttner in Greece last November, at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, where Russian Ark was shown to enthusiastic audiences. Thanks to Irina Vosgerau for interpreting during the interview, and to Joel Agee for additional help with translations in preparing the transcript.-
Louis Menashe Cineaste: I wouldn't have thought, based on the kind of film Run, Lola, Run was, that Sokurov would choose you for work on Russian Ark. Lola is rather different, to say the least, from what Sokurov had done in the past.
Tilman Buttner: Yes, I agree with what you say, but Mr. Sokurov's idea for Russian Ark was for a single take by a good hand-held camera on Steadicam, and he was looking for someone who was good at shooting that way. I think that was the reason he asked me. His German production company had recommended me, and suggested working with me, so I sent him my demo reels, and his answer was "OK, we'll work together." Normally, I'm not the right man for Mr. Sokurov; his films are totally different, cinematographically.
Cineaste: How exactly?
Buttner: His films have very fixed shots, shots of very long duration, and he himself wants to do a lot of the camera work…
Cineaste: He's used different filters, painted frames, distorting lens and mirrors….
Buttner: …Yes, but for this film it was impossible. He can't operate the Steadicam, and he can't interfere with the lens.
Cineaste: So, he needed you, and he needed the kind of work you do in order to realize the conception of Russian Ark - one take, capturing the sense of motion from the initial arrival of the revelers attending the ball to the very end in the ballroom, and moving from one hall to another. And for a single, 90-minute take, he couldn't use film.
Buttner: Actually, his wish was to shoot in film, but technically this was impossible. I proposed using the Sony HD 24p camera. Using this camera you can adjust lighting to create a film look, if you work contrasts between shadow and light. I told him it was the right technology for the project, and that it would be good for later transfer to film, much, much better than 16mm, and much better than mini-DV or Hi-8. My company in Berlin was the first in Germany to buy a 24p camera and all its systems. This was very lucky for us; I could show it to Sokurov, and show him its quality. Lucky timing; a great coincidence.
Cineaste: You were the right person, with the right equipment, at the right moment. So he didn't have to be persuaded - he saw what you could do with this camera and he agreed to go ahead. You spoke of lighting. It looked like you used available light coming through the windows, and other light from chandeliers and fixtures. Was that so throughout, or were certain scenes specially lit?
Buttner: Yes! Yes! (Emphatically.) The camera wasn't sensitive enough in the available light. In St. Petersburg on December 23 it's very dark and we needed a lot of light, although there were a lot of windows, big windows at the Hermitage. I had to create atmospheres, and wanted to avoid having the same atmosphere in each room. I had 40 electricians, and only 26 hours for light preparation in 35 rooms, big rooms. And for the first time in its history, the Hermitage closed a second day for us - usually they close only one day a week. We were given one day for preparation, and a second day for shooting.
Cineaste: There was a scene where Catherine the Great runs out into the snow. It looked to me very natural, using only the available light.
Buttner: Yes, only what was available. But to give it a most natural look, we had to do a lot of things in post-production. Because of the limit on our time, we had to save a lot for post-production in many parts of the film, color correction, for example. We knew before shooting that we could adjust and correct later.
Cineaste: So it meant that you had an enormous amount of preparations - of the rooms, of the lighting for the rooms, not to speak of the hundreds and hundreds of actors and extras assembled for the action. How closely were you involved in the preparation of the action, or did Sokurov map out the whole sequence himself? The step-by-step, room-by room sequence.
Buttner: A year and half before shooting, we had 7 weeks together; we walked through the halls and Sokurov showed me what he wanted. I tried to remember everything, and I also videotaped and took still photographs, especially for preparing the lighting. I and my German gaffer were in constant contact with Russian electricians and gaffers. The story was Sokurov's alone, but it was possible for me to point out how certain positions and movements would help the story.
Cineaste: So it was essentially Sokurov's idea to convey several hundred years of Russian history and some of its personalities at the Hermitage. Where you come in is, for example, when Sokurov wants to show Peter the Great chastising one of his underlings, you tell him we must have a certain kind of lighting, and we must have an exit strategy so I can maneuver to the next scene. Basically, is that the way you worked with him?
Buttner: Yes, yes. I tried to understand his conception, and make suggestions on lighting and camera movement in order to come closer to his meaning. I always had this in mind - what did Sokurov want to express in this film?
Cineaste: You understood what Sokurov's conception was, what he wanted to achieve?
Cineaste: Or did you?
Buttner: I'm not sure. I'm not sure. I tried to understand, but I don't know if he understood me, and what I could do for him.
Cineaste: Hmm… You know, I first saw the film in New York with a Russian friend of mine. She's from St. Petersburg herself, and Petersburgers are very proud of their city, and proud of the Hermitage, and proud of how they survived the war, and so on. She said she liked the film, but she said she really didn't understand what the point of it was. What was he trying to say? And you can't figure that out either?
Buttner: I believe only the director can answer this question! (Laughter) Well, Sokurov has given a lot of interviews about the film, and what he always says is that art is what lasts, art is the most important thing. At the beginning of our work, I asked him why is it we don't see the Soviet period, and revolutionary times - you know, Lenin was in the building too. That was all very important. He said, No! He wanted only the Tsars, and the gold, and the art.
Cineaste: Do you think Sokurov admires that period before the Revolution?
Buttner: I think so.
Cineaste: Well, he's clearly anti-Bolshevik, and anti-Soviet. He has a line in the film where the marquis mentions the Convention in France, a bloody period during the French Revolution, and the narrator (Sokurov) replies "We had a Convention for 80 years."
Buttner: He had no kind words about the Soviet period; you really couldn't talk to him about it. I tried several times to raise the subject. It was a hard time, a cruel time in the Soviet period, but it was also a time of electrification, of railroad building, of industrial progress. And what about the art of that period?
Cineaste: He does have one reference to the Soviet period in the film: the war with Germany and the blockade of Leningrad, when 1 million people perished.
Buttner: Yes, in that connection you hear the sound of an airplane overhead, and you see 4 Soviet soldiers cross in front of me. Then there is a workshop scene - a long, dark room with snow falling within where coffins are being made - from the same period.
Cineaste: Clearly, you shouldn't have discussed politics with Sokurov; he has a different point of view. But did you have any serious artistic differences with him, any creative conflicts in shooting the film?
Buttner: We really didn't have any conflicts as such, but by the end I felt there was a loss of trust. I did my best, but I think Sokurov wasn't satisfied. He didn't show or express that, but I felt it. I think he would have liked to run the camera himself, so in a way it was natural for him to be dissatisfied. But he isn't familiar with new camera technology; he thinks in terms of 35mm film. Exposure works differently with video, its reaction to light is different. When you work with it you have to consider lighting differently, and you have to think about what can be done after shooting, in post-production. He wanted to shoot without light. Impossible, I told him; you would have no picture on the monitor if you use no lighting with this camera. For Sokurov there was sufficient light in the building. But what's important is the relation between darkness and brightness. You have to create atmosphere, not just what's visible to the naked eye, and you have to think about what's possible after shooting.
Cineaste: Didn't Sokurov do his own cinematography for Taurus, the film about Lenin?
Buttner: Yes, but not the lighting. He operated the camera, and moved the camera, but Anatoly Rodionov, his best friend and colleague, and a cinematographer, did the lighting.
Cineaste: You used a Steadicam, meaning that you were constantly in motion with this thing, running through the hallways, and following the actors - you were in good shape! And I don't think there was any tracking.
Buttner: No, but for some parts I had a special dolly built. The Steadicam was always on my body, but occasionally for 30 seconds at a time I would have to rest and stretch by half sitting on a bar-stool placed on the dolly and wheeled over by a grip.
Cineaste: Bravo! You did an extraordinary job. How did the German and Russian crews work together, and how did you like working in a Russian setting?
Buttner: It was wonderful working together with the Russian team. They took very good care of me in their beautiful city, and we did fine work together. I was very impressed by them. There were 40 Russian electricians, with a Russian and a German gaffer. The make-up artists and the 22 assistant directors were all Russian, and did very good work. Only I, my focus-puller, my gaffer, and the camera technician were German.
Cineaste: Placement was obviously very important. The ensembles of actors and extras had to be placed so that the camera could move around them and through them, and so on. Did you have anything to do with that, did you offer suggestions as to where they should be positioned?
Buttner: The AD's were responsible for placing and moving. We weren't able to have a complete rehearsal. Only some parts were rehearsed, and only with the lead actor. It was only on the day of shooting that Sokurov, my shooting team, and I saw the full array of actors for the first time. The AD's had done good work with the actors and extras - in churches and gyms. But it was the first time we were all together in the Hermitage! Eight people were always behind me - Sokurov, translator, continuity people, my assistants. The dancers in the ballroom scene interacted beautifully with the camera and with our movements. You feel that only the camera alone was in the room with them. Sometimes the actors and extras had to improvise their movements and positions during the shooting because of mistakes we made.
Cineaste: Were there any mishaps? Did anyone trip or fall, or miss a cue?
Buttner: No, nothing. But at the beginning of the film, we started continuous shooting only on the fourth take; there were technical problems with the first three. But we had to go with the fourth take - camera batteries for the whole film would not have lasted if we didn't. We also had to take advantage of the natural light; and -- this was very important -- Mr. Gergiev [Valery Gergiev, Conductor of the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra in the film] had to catch a flight back to New York! Later, there was a small problem with one of the lights. It came into the frame when one of the extras with her big costume walked into the room and knocked it over. I was very angry, and cursed…. [he laughs].
Cineaste: During the shooting, especially where there were lots of people, were commands shouted to the actors and extras?
Buttner: Yes. Sokurov was always at my side, at the monitor. He had to speak his part of the dialogue with the marquis, and sometimes he gave instructions altering the actors' and extras' positions. He would shout "Now, move from left to right!" "Stop!" "Move Together!"
Cineaste: Well, it came off beautifully. It looked as if you had rehearsed repeatedly.
Buttner: As I said before, we saw the whole thing only on the day of the shooting. When I arrived, I was fascinated by the beauty of the costumes; I saw the beauty of the scene, and the energy of the people. It gave me the energy to do my part. Midway, I was tired, very tired, and I had muscle pains, but I was so fascinated by the beauty and the novelty that I felt "I have to do this!" Before we entered the ballroom, at the doorway, I was totally overwhelmed by the mass of people, and the spectacle, and the sounds, and Gergiev. I was in pain, and I told my assistant, "Andrei, we can't get through; there are too many people, there's no space to move." He said, "Let's try. We'll make it!"
Cineaste: For me, one of the most impressive scenes of all was the final one where everyone is leaving, hundreds of people are leaving the Grand Ballroom. They've got their coats on, they're talking about how wonderful it was, and the camera is following them all along. How did it feel to shoot that?
Buttner: I was very happy, because I knew that in five minutes it would be over! After the ballroom scene when I "danced" with the dancers, I was very exhausted. When the music ended, my feeling was "Ah, in five minutes…finished!" But before that, there was a very special sequence. I had to go down the steps with the departing guests, then reverse angle and go down the steps backwards. I had to feel my way onto the dolly below, and then my grip pulled me rapidly to the exit.
Cineaste: What were your favorite parts of the film?
Buttner: From a cinematographer's point of view, my favorite was Catherine the Great's scene on the balcony, watching the theater rehearsal. We had good light, and it was prepared in a short time - four hours, when normally a 360-degree shot would require two days of lighting preparation. There was a nice feeling in that room. Another good scene was Catherine running outdoors, in the courtyard; a nice picture. Also the Persian ambassador reporting to Tsar Nicholas I. There were a lot of good scenes, but that theater rehearsal was best.
Cineaste: In that scene with the Persian ambassador, the grandson of the Shah, there's what looks like a long tracking shot, as you survey the courtiers - were you on that dolly for it?
Buttner: No, I walked. We also constructed a special ramp behind the officials so that I shot them from above as I went up the ramp. That was Sokurov's idea.
Cineaste: In the final shot the camera pans and turns to a window, then goes through the window, and it's hard to see what's there - a fog, a river….
Buttner: Yes, that's very interesting. Sokurov was not sure how to end the film. He told me we should go outside and see the river Neva, the snow and ice, and beyond the river, the city of St. Petersburg. He wanted the feeling of an ark, a ship plowing through the waves. I would have to go outside and swing the Steadicam. But after we finished the Hermitage shooting, his idea was to insert something else for the ending in post-production. What you now see at the end of the film is a shot of the Baltic Sea two hours before freezing, with mists rising. We shot that separately, and put it together with my shot from inside the Hermitage.
Cineaste: Meaning, we have seen paintings, culture and art inside the building and now here is the natural world?
Buttner: Yes, it is indefinable space for the "Russian Ark" to sail into the future, as a kind of time-travel vessel carrying all history and culture with it, and not just the Russian.
Cineaste: What did you think of the dialogue between the narrator and the marquis? What was it all about?
Buttner: Well, it was a constant mutual provocation. The main issue was does Russia have its own culture, or did it just imitate the French or the Italians.
Cineaste: I think the marquis is the chief provocateur. For example, at one point the marquis notices how well musicians are playing and affirms that they can't be Russian. The narrator quietly corrects him; yes they are Russian, he says.
Buttner: Sometimes the narrator doesn't take the marquis seriously. And the marquis gets very picky at times. The narrator seems to be saying, in answer to the provocations of the marquis, that what we - the filmmakers - are doing is significant now and for the future, and it is Russian art.