PRINT April 2016


Alexander Sokurov’s Francofonia

Alexander Sokurov, Francofonia, 2015, digital video, color, sound, 87 minutes.

ALEXANDER SOKUROV’S new movie, Francofonia, is both exhilarating and profoundly ruminative. Although it is ostensibly about the threat that hung over the Louvre under the Nazi occupation, its subtitle, An Elegy for Europe, suggests a broader compass. More ambitious than Moscow Elegy (1986–88), Sokurov’s ode to Andrei Tarkovsky, but more accessible than the sublime Elegy from Russia (1992), the movie is laced with the mordant wit of Moloch (1999) and Taurus (2000), Sokurov’s takes on Hitler and Lenin, respectively, and confirms his zest for formal invention. But unlike Russian Ark (2002), his celebrated feature-length tour of the Hermitage in one uninterrupted tracking shot—“designed,” as critic J. Hoberman aptly remarked, “to reproach the montage theorists of Soviet silent cinema”—Francofonia is a cunningly edited, densely layered reflection on European culture and history. Dialogic rather than dialectical, and guided by the warm, commanding voice of its director-narrator, the movie peruses a wide range of images, ideas, people, and artworks, weighing past events and moral questions as they affected the fate of humanity in the twentieth century—Sokurov’s primary subject.

Neither a survey of an art collection in the manner of Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery nor a study of the inner workings of a museum in the vein of Oeke Hoogendijk’s New Rijksmuseum (both 2014), Francofonia is as engaged with paintings and sculptures as it is with photographs, archival material, and graphics (e.g., the time-lapse drawings tracing each stage of the Louvre’s construction). The movie’s very look mirrors interaction with the past; it simulates the film stock contemporary to the period of its reenacted episodes, even as it lends an anachronistic digital sheen to the ghostly figures who roam the museum’s corridors—a comically narcissistic Napoleon who exclaims “C’est moi!” not only before paintings glorifying his victories but also in front of the Mona Lisa; and Marianne, the restless spirit of the French Revolution, who chants “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” until the words are rendered meaningless. There is also sepia-toned newsreel footage of Hitler riding through Paris; of Nazi soldiers strolling through the city; of Marshal Pétain, leader of the Vichy regime; and of Parisians in sidewalk cafés gazing at pompous displays of German victory. Napoléon speaks for them when he spies Prussians in a painting of his coronation and wonders how they could be in the Louvre.

Given Sokurov’s idiosyncratic approach to history, art, and film form, it’s not surprising that the first image following the opening credits does not evoke the Louvre, Napoléon, or Hitler. Rather, we are confronted by a riveting photograph of the elderly Leo Tolstoy, the man who immortalized Russia’s costly triumph over Napoléon’s invasion in his greatest novel. In a sense, that triumph is emulated in Francofonia’s account of the less celebrated feat achieved by two men whose undeclared, even transgressive, collusion resulted in the survival of France’s greatest institution in a face-off with the twentieth century’s most notorious dictator. They were Jacques Jaujard (played by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing in the reenactments), director of the Louvre, and Count Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath), art historian and officer in charge of securing the museum’s holdings for the German government.

By the time the Wehrmacht entered Paris on June 14, 1940, most of the Louvre’s important works had been transferred to various châteaus across France—a process we see in shrewdly edited exchanges between actual footage and reenactments. Although fears of bombing subsided after the armistice and during the occupation, Metternich, in an imaginary interview with our off-screen narrator, cites the bombings of London and Rotterdam as evidence that the danger persists—a point made eerily literal in the fictitious shot of a bomber making his way inexplicably between two long arms of the Louvre. Though the exchange with Metternich is contrived,the man did heroically thwart orders to demand the return of the Louvre’s holdings, citing both bureaucratic procedure and—according to the reenacted Metternich—Germany’s promise during World War I to respect the cultural heritage of other countries. In this way, he lived up to his true vocation and saved the Louvre’s collection from expropriation.

Lamenting the way mankind judges values in general, Sokurov contrasts the relatively humane way the Nazis treated Paris with their indifference to both art and life when they bombed Leningrad and starved its population. It is in the context of such moral vagaries that we should understand Sokurov’s evocation of Tolstoy, whose ethical stature, for the director and many others, towers over that of virtually every other European literary figure of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thus when Sokurov—seeking a moral compass for how to make value judgments, perhaps even how to shape his movie—asks, as we ponder Tolstoy’s transfixing gaze, “Why is he looking at me like that?” and “Who can I turn to?” we sense how lost he believes humanity is without spiritual guidance. Given Sokurov’s love of cinematic and historical play, it would not surprise me if he intended this photograph of Tolstoy to “speak” across the entire arc of Francofonia right to the bloodred screen that follows the last image, suggesting that the novelist did, indeed, “know what was awaiting us.” If Tolstoy haunts Francofonia no less than the ghosts of Napoleon and Marianne, it is as the moral arbiter who viewed all political endeavors, revolutions, and grandiose schemes of conquerors as human follies in the light of a truth that transcends history.

The underlying issue of which values matter most is at the heart of Sokurov’s thought and the enormous importance he places on art and its preservation. As he demonstrated in Russian Ark and Moscow Elegy, a museum is not just a museum, but the very heartbeat and stored memory of humanity’s ways of looking at and examining itself—something every penetrating gaze in this movie confirms, beginning with Tolstoy’s. For Sokurov, these images collapse time and sustain the dialogue between past and present. Through the very intimacy with which his camera caresses the Louvre’s magnificent portraits—these faces of “people . . . of their own time”—a telepathic communication with the painterly subjects’ preternatural expressions seems almost palpable.

Sokurov wonders what would have become of European culture, or of his own evolution, had portraiture never emerged. Judging from the portraits we see, he implies that such things as introspection and the importance of the individual might not have developed. One wonders, however, given his assertion that portraiture did not emerge in Muslim culture, how we should read the deeply recessed gazes in other non-Western works, such as a giant Assyrian sculpture from the eighth century BCE, or the contorted features of a nine-thousand-year-old stone figure discovered in Jordan in 1992. Is it not true of them, no less than of the European portraits, that we “never tire of asking,” as the protagonist of Michel Tournier’s Erl King remarks of the Greco-Roman busts in the Louvre, “the same question . . . of what sight, what life, what universe are you the secret cipher?”

To stress the danger faced by the Louvre, and the consequent loss to Western values its destruction would have represented, Sokurov follows another “story” that in fact functions as a metaphor for the main one. We watch the director in his study communicating via Sea Connect (a fictional nautical Skype) with a Captain Dirk, whose ship is transporting artworks across stormy waters. This is echoed by an audiovisual montage in which Dirk’s despairing voice breaks up on the sound track as the camera scans Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, 1818–19, thereby implicitly comparing the fate of the survivors of a shipwreck to that of the endangered cargo aboard Dirk’s ship. “It’s not human, dragging art across the oceans,” exclaims Sokurov, all but equating art with human life.

Given the movie’s verbal and visual density, Francofonia’s most remarkable shots might easily go unnoticed. These include two spectacular aerial views from a camera floating between buildings and upward into a panorama of Paris. More modest is a long-take close-up, without voice-over commentary, of the right hand of a marble figure, as a live human hand tentatively reaches up from below the frame line to make contact, turning gently to simulate the curvature of the marble, as if to interlace fingers with the stone ones and summon them to life. It is perhaps the most stunning example of the director’s impulse to link the past with the present, the living with the dead, and art with life.

In a final reenactment, Sokurov gives his two unsung heroes a glimpse of their futures. Jaujard, despite having worked with the Pétain regime, will receive honorable appointments but will die in 1967, a few days after being fired from his post, and will virtually disappear from history. Metternich will be recalled to Germany, censured for his efforts to save French culture, undergo denazification (helped by a good word from Jaujard), and receive the French Legion of Honor. On May 25, 1978, he will die and be solemnly buried with his family in attendance. Both men listen to the narrator with bemusement; then, dismissing Sokurov’s account as “ravings,” Jaujard leaves the room, followed shortly by Metternich. The camera pauses on the two empty chairs before the screen goes red and we hear a recording of Nazi Germany’s national anthem so mangled as to serve as an appropriate dirge to end the movie.

Francofonia opens on April 1 at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York.

Tony Pipolo is a frequent contributor to Artforum.