Heidi is on her way to Russia right now, or at least really soon, and I am sitting here at her desk being very jealous. She gets to visit St. Petersburg, and the Hermitage, where Sokurov made my favorite film of all time, Russian Ark. The films spirals through Russian history as though through a dream, never stopping, never staying in one place. The camera work itself is a feat: the film was shot in one take, with a steadycam, a cast of hundreds, the entire Hermitage as the set, and three live orchestras. Particularly affecting are the depictions of Catherine the Great as an aging queen, still spry enough to take a run through her snow-covered gardens with a courtier supporting her, and the scene from the Second World War, with all the frames empty and on the floor, the great rooms dark and bare.
The Director of the Hermitage ordered everything packed up during World War II and shipped off to safety. The frames remained, however, as a sign to the Germans that Russia would be back to display the glory of its gallery once again. Debra Dean chronicles this devastating time in Russian history in her novel The Madonnas of Leningrad. In the book, Marina, a young docent at the Hermitage, helps to pack the paintings and other pieces away; at the same time, she takes daily walks through the empty rooms, remembering by sheer force of will the pictures that once hung on the walls. She is drawn to the Madonnas in particular; I, on the other hand, wish I could see in person Fragonard's The Stolen Kiss, or any of the Poussin paintings they hold. More than that, I simply wish I sould walk those halls and see the mouldings, the staircases, the gardens.
I'll most likely never make it to Russia, and that saddens me to no end.