Francofonia: An Elegy for Europe, directed by Alexander Sokurov

Alexander Sokurov haunts and is haunted by great museums. In 2002 he directed Russian Ark, a virtuoso film shot in the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg. The film used the museum and its collection as a stage set in which nine hundred actors and extras acted out three centuries of Russian history in an unedited 95-minute-long tracking shot. It was salivatory and sumptuous.

In his most recent film, Francofonia, he returns to the internal architecture and content of a museum, this time the Musée du Louvre, to look again at the machinations of history, but in occupied Paris the time frame is shorter and the stakes are higher than they were in Russia. The historical event the film covers begins with the German occupation of France from June 14, 1940, and ends when Paris and the Louvre are liberated.

Francofonia is an odd combination of elements: it opens and closes with only sound and no image—voice at the beginning and music at the end. In between we are given a mixture of speculative re-enactment, World War II archival footage, loving pans across iconic paintings and sculptures in the Louvre’s collection, and short segments where we see Sokurov in his study in Russia, ruminating on his film (which he declares unsuccessful) and the safety of his friend, Captain Dirk, who is transporting a priceless cargo of art from a museum in Rotterdam to a place that is never mentioned for reasons that are never made clear. It’s like a phantom excursion.

At intervals throughout the 87-minute-long film, Sokurov attempts to sustain contact with Dirk via Skype. He is largely unsuccessful, as is Dirk in the safe delivery of his art. In a later sequence we see the large cargo containers floating in a turbulent sea. Dirk’s efforts to save the art for which he is responsible is meant to function as a contemporary equivalent to what was done to protect France’s artistic patrimony during the Nazi occupation. As Sokurov says in his narration, paraphrasing Anton Chekhov, “Elemental forces of the sea and of history are those without sense or pity.” Dirk is apparently less successful in his encounter with the pitiless sea than were his Paris predecessors in facing the Nazi’s senseless march of history. These ocean scenes, while anomalous, do serve to illustrate the precarious safety of art and culture under the control of powerful and unpredictable external forces. Sokurov will press further his mixing of nature and history when he concentrates later in the film on his two main figures, Jacques Jaujard, the Director of the National Museums in France and Count Franziskus Wolff-Metternich, the Nazi officer heading the Kunstschutz, the department charged with the preservation of art collections, museums and historic monuments in France and Europe. “A person is surrounded by an ocean,” Sokurov says, “while a person has his own ocean within.” When Francofonia shifts from archive to re-enactment, we will gain insight into the effects of that internal ocean.

The film operates in an interrogative register. From the beginning Sokurov poses questions to history—“What is it that awaits us all?” or “Might it be that the Louvre is worth more than all of France?”—and he turns to a varied group to answer them. Tolstoy and Chekhov appear early on as possible sources of wisdom, as do the people of Russia and France, and painters who, through the art of portraiture, say something about the indelible nature of the European soul. The trick with Sokurov is that he asks questions to which he feels he already has, if not answers, at least a number of reasonable explanations. The interrogative mode is just a ploy for the operation of the declarative. The question plays straight man to the known answer.

In earlier films, Sokurov has been obsessed with figures who have been corrupted by power, and over a 12-year period, beginning in 1999 with Moloch, he made a quartet of films that measured its distorting influence. Moloch was about Hitler and Eva Braun; Taurus (2001) focused on Lenin; The Sun (2005) concentrated on Emperor Hirohito; and Faust (2011) used the persistent fiction of a pact with the devil to present the destructive effects of sexual desire. Faust won the Golden Lion at the 68th Venice Film Festival in the year it was released. Sokurov is a film giant.

The protagonists in Francofonia, in contrast, are not larger-than-life. What makes them interesting is that they perform above our expectations. What starts as an investigation into the relationship between power and art, with war as the arena in which this confrontation works itself out, becomes a two-person biopic in which art wins out over power, still seen against the mercurial backdrop of war. If the film makes any claims on heroism, its manifestation is quiet, noticeable in something as simple as a raised eyebrow. The actors playing Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) and Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath) are excellent, as is the cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel. The link between the historical and the archival footage and the combination of shooting and image processing is seamless and impeccable. I would never have guessed that everything shot in Paris is fictional. Delbonnel’s camera eye inhabits occupied Paris in a way that is uncanny, even hallucinogenic. At one point in the film a German war plane slowly flies through the interior sculpture galleries of the museum. The Louvre is, indeed, occupied territory.

The haunting Sokulov is subjected to in Francofonia is embodied in a pair of distantly connected figures: Marianne, the symbol of Republican France made famous in Delacroix’s 1830 painting, Liberty Leading the People, whose singular mantra throughout the film is “Liberté, égalité, fraternité;” and Napoleon Bonaparte, who points to a pair of paintings, the 1850 Delaroche portrait in which he crosses the alps on a mule, and Jacques-Louis David’s glorious 1807 depiction of his coronation, as evidence that everything in the Louvre’s collection is about him. Sitting next to Marianne on a bench in front of the Mona Lisa, he points to Leonardo’s enigmatic painting and makes the megalomaniacal observation, “C’est moi.”

There is something of Bonaparte in the role Sokurov plays in his own film. His voice-over and commentary blanket the film. He asks whether we have grown tired of his voice. The question is both a taunt and a tacit admission that he may have exceeded our tolerance level for his observations on everything from political history to pronouncements on “the human search for form, and the battle against imitation.” Finally, he doesn’t care. After all, it is his voice at the end of the film that summons Jaujard and Metternich into a room where he asks them if they want to know their fate, gives them insufficient time to reply, and then tells them, whether they want to hear it or not. His summary is accurate, direct and ruthlessly matter-of-fact. He has had most of the words in the film and certainly he has the last one. Knowing where history has gone gives you a decided advantage over those who are living it as they go. Jaujard dismisses what he hears as ‘ravings’ and walks out of the room; Metternich is stunned because he accepts them as true. Cassandra to one; prophet to the other.

Sokurov’s film functions in a meta-world, where residues of cinema and architecture are constant. We are frequently reminded that what we are looking at is a film, so sound stripes and sprocket holes are visible in the re-enactment scenes between Jaujard and Metternich, and on a number of occasions a scene will begin with a clapboard introduction. In an early sequence in Paris we see two young Frenchmen riding on a motorcycle and surreptitiously filming street scenes with a movie camera wrapped in newspaper. Sokurov’s voiceover approvingly says, “The French are all cinematographers, regardless of the situation.”

The professional group to which he attributes power is architects. He addresses current practitioners through observing one of their own, Pierre Lescot, who designed the façade of the Louvre. “Listen here, contemporary architects,” Sokurov says as the camera pans across the ceiling to show the exquisite Henry II staircase, the embodiment of the ideals of the French Renaissance and Lescot’s most important contribution to the interior design of the museum. The narration continues, “Lescot was a mathematician, a painter, a priest and an architect. The year was 1553. Lord. How long ago it all started.”

We are led to believe that the “all” is the beauty of the building and the range of talent necessary to achieve it, but our attention abruptly shifts from art to war with another haunting from Napoleon, who makes clear the motivation behind his military campaigns: “Why else would I have gone to war? For this,” he says, standing amidst a gallery full of sculptures. “I went to war for art.” There are occasions when the logic of scenes can seem disconnected but ultimately, they all establish some connection, if only tangentially, to the intersections of art and power, with war as the principal theatre of operation. Francofonia advances through a particular kind of associative logic; a slow pan across the surface of Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818–19) naturally takes us to the endangered, art-burdened ship and the critical choice its Captain has to make between saving the ship or the art. There are no digressions in the film, just moments in which we’re asked to reconsider what we’ve just seen. As Sokurov himself has said, Francofonia is “more collage than chronology.”

How do we read a complex, layered and difficult film? It’s the same question we ask when confronted with a painting of comparable density. Sokurov uses one of the most perplexing works in the Louvre’s collection to give us one perspective on reading the complicated circumstances in which his historical figures find themselves. Jaujard is walking through one of the museum’s galleries and he has just asked himself a series of questions that underline the contradictions he is dealing with: he is in the service of the Vichy government and he is secretly supporting the Resistance; at the same time he is collaborating with a high-ranking military nobleman who represents an invading army. “Do I know why I’m working for this government?” he asks. “Yes I do. Do I know that this could last a long time?” He poses the same set of questions again and on the second round, he glances up at the Leonardo portrait of St. John the Baptist, painted between 1513 and 1516. This masterpiece is regarded by art historians as Leonardo’s last painting and while it renders a smile different from the one on the Mona Lisa, it is no less enigmatic. This John the Baptist is androgynous; his long hair, soft rounded shoulder and elongated right hand are decidedly feminine. The index finger is especially long and it points straight up into the air. Scholars are not sure what this gesture means, although most agree it is a reminder from the saint who names the ritual that baptism is a guarantee of entrance into heaven, the domain to which he so emphatically draws our attention. (The hand from this painting is the cover image on the top of a pile of books that we see in the shots of Sokurov in his study).

Da Vinci’s painting may have been about religious salvation, but Jaujard has recognized that anything he has been able to secure for life and art in the secular, perverse world of occupied France comes with a saturating irony. Jacques Jaujard, career civil servant, Resistance fighter and collaborator with two corrupt systems of power, looks at the pointing finger and understands its ambiguous and rude meaning. The smile on his face matches the one on the face of John the Baptist, who still has his head about him. They are both giving the finger to history. ❚