The works of Peter Carl Fabergé are explored in this spry, surprisingly passionate documentary, which is about both the history and the legacy of the eponymous, enduring works of art.
Towards the end of Patrick Mark’s documentary Faberge: A Life of Its Own, someone proclaims that the works of Fabergé are “the closest a group of men have come to perfection on this earth”. This gave me pause for thought; who, exactly, is this sprightly little documentary actually for? It seemed to me, watching it, that everyone who might plausibly be interested in a 90 minute exploration of the history of the Peter Carl Fabergé empire had also been asked to star in it.
This sentiment, I fear, is pure antagonism; this documentary was for people like me, and, I presume that if you’re reading this of your own free will, for people like yourself. It is for people who browse BBC4 when they’re bored, and perhaps for people who’ve picked up the odd copy of “The Oldie”. It is what it is, and that’s that.
But what is it? This is not one of the great documentaries, nor does it pretend to be. It is simply, an hour and a half history lesson of Peter Carl Fabergé, his great works of art, how it ties in with the history of the fall of the Russian empire, its subsequent migration to America, its exploitation under the nadir of 80’s free market capitalism, and the latter day resurgence and attempts to return the Fabergé name to its original connotations of prestige and privilege.
The film is told through a combination of slightly out of place illustrations, a great number of talking heads, stock footage of Russian history and American commercials, and original footage of ruins, all strung along with a dry, just-the-right-side-of-laconic narration from Samuel West. The attempts at a straight history lesson are where the film is at its least compelling, seeming somewhat tenuous. Conversely, the film is never more fascinating than when the camera is pointed at a Fabergé work, while someone talks about it passionately and with great knowledge. Despite the dry trappings, this is obviously a documentary inspired from a certain zealous passion. These people love Fabergé.
In this regard, to the layman, the film is accessible and also convincing. Periods where we see the construction of Fabergé works are gently hypnotic, allowing us to see the naked craft that goes into putting these pieces together. It also made me appreciate that, as much as Fabergé has become symbolic as some kind of flashy, flush elite willing to drop cash at the drop of a hat, this is in many ways simply an image. A lot of Fabergé works were constructed as private gifts for friends; most of them, it seems, derive from a yearning for the aesthetic that would please Aristotle. The word “craft” is bandied around a lot. These are workers before they are artists; it just happens that their work is worthy of the term art.
That’s, really, all. I do not mean this as a criticism. The film is wide, but not deep; what struck me as ironic enough to hinge an entire film around (the fact that Fabergé was initially not concerned with prestige, and yet later on his brand almost represented an apotheosis of prestige) is not explored. Mark is keen to not take sides, and simply presents the works of art as they are, neutrally. An anarchist and a monarch could both watch this film and come out with the same response – that response being, “well, that was rather interesting, actually”.
Fabergé: A Life Of Its Own (2015), directed by Patrick Mark, is released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray by Mark Stewart Productions. Certificate PG.