‘Francofonia’ artfully studies art, culture and spoils of war



Given ISIS’ destruction of art and historical treasures in the Middle East, it is perhaps timely to release a film about the fate of art under an occupying force, and the role of art in culture and history.

Director Aleksandr Sokurov’s documentary “Francofonia” is built around the fate of the Louvre museum and its art during the Nazi occupation of France. Sokurov also directed “Russian Ark,” a striking, beautiful documentary about St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum that was filmed in a single shot. 

Now the Russian-born filmmaker builds the action on two historical figures, the Louvre’s French museum director, Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing),  and the German officer and art connoisseur appointed by Adolf Hitler to oversee it, Count Franziskus Wolff Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath).

However, it quickly becomes clear that this film has a larger focus that just this specific moment in time. Like “Russian Ark,” the French-language “Francofonia” is not a documentary in the usual sense, but more a contemplative, philosophical journey through European culture and history. The director uses voice-over narration to comment on history, on the role of art and, particularly, on museums.

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The film mixes re-creations, archival footage, contemporary shots and superimposed or manipulated images in telling a larger story. It is a meditation on art, culture and history, and, like the director’s “Russian Ark,” centers on a museum as a place for that intersection. 

Throughout human history, forces have attempted to erase the history and culture of the conquered through the destruction of their art. The Nazis had a unique view on art, hoarding some artworks and destroying others. 

Before the Nazis marched into Paris, much of the Louvre’s art already had been moved to safer chateaux around the country, so that Metternich arrived to find a largely empty museum. Metternich, a museum curator, was expected to add the collection to Berlin’s loot but ended up helping preserve France’s art treasures. 

At times, the camera roams the museum halls with the ghost of Napoleon (Vincent Nemeth) and the spirit of the French Republic, Marianne (Johanna Korthals Altes). Periodically, the director talks by Skype with the captain of a container ship that is carrying the artworks of an unnamed museum, the cultural heritage of an unnamed country. Navigating stormy seas, the captain worries that the cargo may sink the ship, perhaps a metaphor for the challenges of the ship of state in preserving its national heritage, or for museums as the repositories of history and culture.

“Francofonia” is not quite as accessible as “Russian Ark,” but it is undeniably beautiful despite its unconventional style. Filmed by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who also shot “Russian Ark” and “Amelie,” “Francofonia” employs a number of interesting techniques, such as using a sepia tone for shots to evoke an earlier time period, re-creating the look of period silver-nitrate film for the World War II re-enactments, or superimposing images to make a connection between concepts. 

Strolls through the Louvre, perhaps accompanied by Napoleon, pointing out the artworks he brought to it, or Marianne, the embodiment of France who repeats the famous slogan of the French Revolution “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” spotlight the sheer beauty of the museum itself and its art treasures. 

Sokurov trained as a historian before turning to film directing, and his interest in both history and art recur in his films. “Francofonia” fits in well with the director’s body of work, which spans documentary, drama and combinations of both.  

Here, the director offers a tour of European cultural history, focusing on Paris’ prominent role, but also noting the harsher treatment given by the Nazis to museums in other countries, including Russia’s Hermitage. 

Strangely, what is missing from the film’s tour of European history is direct mention of Jewish contributions, or of Nazi treatment of Jewish art, a surprising omission.