FRANCOFONIA, the great (okay, greatest living) Russian auteur Alexander Sokurov’s most recent film, is a study in fragile beauty and recurring nightmares. Haunted alike by visual technologies and an obsessive return to the epicenter of modern European trauma, World War II, it is unmistakably the dark companion piece to Russian Ark (2002) — the 96-minute, single-shot, politically problematic ode to St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum that effectively guaranteed Sokurov a place in the history books of film.
Like Russian Ark, Francofonia falls into the category of Sokurov’s museum films. Other films in this loosely linked series include Elegy of a Voyage (2001), about Rotterdam’s Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, and Robert: A Fortunate Life (2009), a portrait of Hubert Robert, famed painter of ruins and post–Revolutionary director of the Louvre. Though Sokurov’s best-known series is his “power tetralogy” — Moloch (1999), Taurus (2001), The Sun (2005), and Faust (2011) — his museum films seem more central to his vision: meditations on art and empire, on the long durée of aesthetic objects, and the intermingled stories of their loss (or astonishing preservation) and that of human life.
But the similarities between Francofonia and the triumphant Russian Ark only highlight their dramatic divergence. The differences in lighting alone alert us to a changed historical mood: unlike the Ark, which used the Hermitage as a theatrically lit stage set, Francofonia was shot by natural light after hours in the Louvre. There are economic and political reasons behind this palpable difference: the Louvre would never agree to anything like the arrangement granted Sokurov in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage during the early years of Putin’s first presidency. The official number of extras wandering the halls of Russia’s most prestigious museum rose to several thousand and included three orchestras; moreover, the museum’s alarms were disarmed, as they interfered with the filming equipment. No production budget could have bought anyone else the resources and the access gifted Sokurov — including the presence of fellow Russian maestro, conductor Valery Gergiev, among the cast.
Some miracles can be wrought by phone calls alone. Just as the great museums of Europe arose through and are complicit with the crimes of empire, so, too, certain films. But if, in Russian Ark, Sokurov suggests the jubilant return of an aesthetically refined Russia after a century-long barbaric intermission (with Gergiev presiding over a costume ball of resurrected royals like a prim Woland from The Master and Margarita), in Francofonia Sokurov mourns Europe’s fall. To whom? To the barbarians, of course.
Despite its geographic displacement from Russia to France for most of the picture, Francofonia is a far more personal work than Russian Ark. It opens with Sokurov himself in his study, saturnine, inevitably facing away from the camera as he Skypes with an English-speaking captain. Captain Dirk (yes, really) is in the process of guiding a ship of precious cultural cargo over perilous waters. The visual, if certainly not political, echo here is of Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme (2010), similarly preoccupied with various screens and visual captures, and purposefully blending high and low fidelity. (The one political position the two auteurs may currently share is anti-Americanism: Godard insisted that his English subtitles mimic the cruelly racist “Navajo English” of the previous century’s American Westerns.)
Like Godard, Sokurov is a maestro of the visual image who here restrains himself, for the most part: there are a few breathtaking shots of Paris from above, and one marvelous mirage of a plane that appears to fly through a Louvre gallery, but they are rather exceptions. Instead, the Skype session’s pixilation, frozen frames, and eventual loss of image communicate as effectively as more familiar pyrotechnics. The connection keeps breaking up, for the captain and his vessel (the ship of civilization; the ark) are in grave danger, or already lost.
Sokurov’s ill-fated dialogue with Captain Dirk frames the dominant story of Francofonia: the fate of the Louvre during Nazi occupation. With a mix of bitterness and gratitude, Sokurov underscores both the ease with which Paris fell and the (relative) courtesy with which the city was then treated. The French government escaped to Vichy; Marshal Philippe Pétain — 84 years old in 1940, a man from another century — ordered his soldiers not to fight and urged French citizens not to resist. The sense of fundamental European kinship was returned by the aristocratic, French-speaking Nazi officers taking up their new posts; hence, presumably, the film’s name, though Francofilia would also have served.
As ever in Sokurov, the absences and implied contrasts speak volumes: the central story lures our attention while the horrors of what happened elsewhere lurk under the surface or just outside the frame. The Eastern Front awaits a later exposition. But the most shocking absence in Sokurov’s occupied Paris is that of the Jews: as cars, soldiers, and Nazi officers pour into the French capital, Francofonia dares to fret about what could have, but did not happen to the Louvre’s collections.
To be sure, there is a storied line of arthouse films reflecting the war through unexpected lenses: we need look no further than Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942), Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal (1957), François Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980), Istvan Szabo’s Mephisto (1981), Lars von Trier’s Europa (1991), Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995), and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), to name a small but illustrious handful. Indeed, it is essentially a requirement of ambitious films that they not only foreground the impossibility of filming the unfilmable (à la Adorno), but that they at all costs sidestep what, from Kapò to Schindler’s List, has long been rendered cinematic cliché.
And so it remains a genuinely unresolved question for me, after several viewings of Francofonia, whether Sokurov purposefully displaces the unbearable mourning for Jewish children with wonder at Théodore Géricault’s preserved Raft of the Medusa — or whether he genuinely thinks the Louvre “worth more than France.” An unpleasant whiff of anti-Semitism hovered about his (stunning, grotesque) adaptation of Faust, but it could just as easily have emanated from the source material. Perhaps, so too here, with Europe’s cultural treasures. We wince, but with a director of Sokurov’s magnitude and misanthropy, we don’t know whether we wince with him.
To tell a story of art and war that we haven’t seen before, Sokurov deftly manipulates layers of visual imagery, blending document, essay, and stylized fictions. (His method somewhat recalls Peter Greenaway’s Dutch Masters series: for example, the 2007 Nightwatching.) Not failing to delight at the hutzpah of French cameramen who found ways to disguise equipment and film the occupation in real time, Sokurov augments documentary footage with digital additions, a super-imposed soundtrack on the left side of the screen, as well as a series of reenactments and odd vivifications. In the center is an unexpected love story, if you will, shared by Deputy Director of the Louvre Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) and Count Franziskus Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath), the officer in charge of Kunstschutz, or art protection, in France from 1940 to 1942.
“You’re the only Frenchman I’ve found at his post,” Count Wolff-Metternich quips in elegant French, and so begins a relationship of building mutual respect between the two gentlemen. Technically, one is a collaborator in the employ of the Vichy government and the other a Nazi officer, but no matter. Both are high priests of European art, connoisseurs who recognize each other as members of the same order and at no point flag in their real allegiance: to the art. Under Jaujard’s direction, the Louvre’s masterpieces are moved out in advance of the occupation and hidden in the chateaux of wealthy allies, whose basements and wine cellars were sizable enough to store such canvases. And there, despite direct orders to the contrary, Wolff-Metternich allows them to remain, waiting out yet another mortal conflict.
Once the war is over, Jaujard and Wolff-Metternich’s evident dedication liberates them along with the artworks. In an odd act of generational revenge, Sokurov breaks in on their tête-à-tête from behind camera, and sits them down to reveal the future. Germany will lose the war: “Are you surprised? Has she ever won?” One of the two men will be forgiven for his Vichy ties, awarded a Medal of the Resistance, and named a Commander of the Legion of Honor for his efforts; the other de-Nazified (one imagines a painting gently cleansed and treated to restorative touch-ups) and ultimately also honored and internationally recognized. The first will then inexplicably fall out of favor and die forgotten; the second will pass away amid the material comforts of his considerable family.
It is impossible to notice a certain grim pleasure the filmmaker takes in his power of prophecy. But the only joy here is in the art: in paintings and sculpture purposefully framed so as to be heartbreakingly beautiful. Despite lack of lighting, individual works in Francofonia are shown to far greater glory than in the single-take Russian Ark. French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie , Inside Llewyn Davis , as well as Sokurov’s Faust) has time to linger on Jacques-Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoleon; to expose the cracks on Botticelli’s surfaces; to gaze at the Winged Victory of Samothrace caught in improbable motion.
Ghosts emerge from this sepulchrum too, in the person of Napoleon (Vincent Nemeth) and allegorical personification of the Republic, Marianne (Johanna Korthals Altes). This pair provides the film’s tragicomic relief and delivers its punch lines. “I did this,” Napoleon claims, in hall after hall: “There I am; that is me; that too is me.” For — and this is Sokurov’s thesis — there would be no Louvre to treasure were it not for centuries of bloody conquest, colonization, war, and looting. It is only in the final fraction of the film that the point sinks fully home. The Louvre is the child of empire, the fragile ark of Europe: even the Nazis — at least the gentlemen among them — understood that this was Europe. Other civilizations didn’t invent portraiture, Sokurov muses (without a trace of apparent irony); “we” Europeans did.
All this beauty is Napoleon’s — that of one Napoleon or another. “Chase him away, Marianne,” the filmmaker pleads at one point; but the Phrygian-capped wraith merely chants “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” unseen and unheard by anyone else. In Sokurov’s hands, the very idea of the Republic is just another lovely, useless, and expensive thing. I suspect that Sokurov intends more here than just a gentle mockery of Marianne — that he holds the translated ideas of the French Revolution to blame for the Bolsheviks in 1917.
And then we flash to the Eastern Front, where the Axis Powers were less romantic — and where the city that had once been, and would again be, Sokurov’s beloved St. Petersburg did not go gently. The siege of Leningrad was the memory too painful to be touched except glancingly in the Russian Ark — it was suppressed behind a quickly slammed door, a chapter to be eclipsed by the pageant of resurgent Russian imperial glory. In Francofonia it resurfaces through analogy: while the Louvre’s treasures were preserved during World War II, in that other great European museum, surplus crates and scaffolds were used to make coffins. That is, when there were people and strength enough to bury their starved and frozen dead. At other times, the numbers of dead grew too large, and the survivors too hungry. Palpating the silent heart of the horror, Sokurov retells a vision of a woman and child frozen to death on the street. The next day, the child’s corpse was gone.
Where is the ark sailing in our digital age? This is the question that bookends Sokurov’s film. The mission is not worth your life, the director tells his friend, despite the suggestion of the entire film to the contrary. Indeed, Captain Dirk feels otherwise, implying that he has the soul of a nation on board. Perhaps he is returning his cargo somewhere, repatriating looted cultural capital to the east or the west. But the film strongly implies that this time, the ark sinks en route. The final images of Francofonia look like digital noise, tinted a dark, ominous red. As the swelling orchestral music, composed by Murat Kabardokov, recognizably samples the Soviet anthem, the screen tints fascist-black, and then once more changes shades to dark blue, with vague shapes suggesting an underwater view.
It is tempting to read Sokurov’s most recent film as a change of heart from Russian Ark: as a story of Russia’s most recent brief moment of European glory (are we surprised? was it ever not brief?) masquerading as the portrait of a Parisian museum. At the same time, it is impossible to miss Francofonia’s cry of mourning and even betrayal — the Soviet-born artist’s sense of loss, of the passing of an imagined and longed-for Europe that never really was.