‘Time is a knot,’ remarks Alexandr Sokurov during his voiceover for his period docu-fiction, Francofonia. Anyone who has seen the director’s previous masterpiece, Russian Ark (2002), will remember that film’s complicated web of Russian history and the graceful, uninterrupted dance by which it is navigated. This acknowledgement of time’s complex tangle has never meant that Sokurov is willing (or able) to straighten it out for us, however, meaning that Francofonia requires some work on the part of the viewer to do so.
At its heart is the story of two World War II collaborators: Louvre director Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do Lencquesaing) and Nazi officer Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath). Although they represent different sides of the conflict, both men are appointed – and feel it their duty – to protect the priceless works of art held in the Louvre. However, Hitler’s order to confiscate any valuable cultural artifacts that are ‘the ownerless goods of Jews’ means that they must also protect the museum’s pieces from the occupying Nazi forces, an endeavour which places both men in danger.
Frequent digressions from this narrative allow Sokurov to craft his ‘elegy for Europe’ more fully. Some of these are metaphorical – a cargo ship loaded with containers full of valuable art is tossed about on a stormy sea – while others are more didactic in their purpose. The political situation that has brought the two collaborators together is vividly explained through archive footage and photographs. Sokurov takes us to Leningrad during its siege by invading forces. As his narration informs us, Hitler believed that, ‘Art monuments on the Eastern Front have no significance and shall be consigned to destruction.’ The skeletons of empty picture frames gather dust in abandoned galleries, just like the dead bodies of men and children lying forgotten in the streets, which we witness during alarming footage previously seen in Sergei Loznitsa’s Blockade (2006).
This is an indication of Sokurov’s real conflict. Francofonia is the work of a man unable to reconcile the wondrous art that humanity can create with the horrors that it inflicts upon itself. This time, rather than inviting us into the party, as he does in Russian Ark, Sokurov begs we stay outside in the cold and look upon the work of tyrants and egomaniacs. The visual register rarely settles; it switches from antique, sepia-tinged filmstock to sharper, contemporary images of the director in his office, speaking to the captain of the stricken cargo ship via a fuzzy video link.
These switches in setting and visual format allow us to cast a critical gaze on the story of Jaujard and Wolff-Metternich, but it means that the elegant movements of Russian Ark are really missed. Francofonia, perhaps by design, feels stifling in comparison. There are, however, still some wonderful moments when the landscape is allowed to open up within the frame, such as the soaring crane shots where the camera rises above the Paris skyline to join the Messerschmitts strafing the city, or the drone shots that allow us to survey its long-lost, pre-industrial countryside.
It is perhaps unfair to compare Francofonia to Russian Ark so closely. This latest film, however, feels like an epilogue to that earlier one. It opens on turbulent seas, just as Russian Ark ends with them. Sokurov traces the knot of time eagerly in both films and in Francofonia seems to jump between periods, just like the narrator of Russian Ark does, at one point speaking to Jaujard and Wolff-Metternich directly. The juxtaposition of art and war is returned to in both films repeatedly. In Russian Ark, the portraits hanging on the walls of the Winter Palace hide the coffins of Leningrad; in Francofonia, the only difference is that there are no coffins protecting the dead from the elements. He exposes how little the human race learns over time, how often we forget what it is like to be at war. Sokurov’s elegy for Europe could just as easily be a eulogy.
Country: France, Germany, Netherlands Language: Russian, French, German, English Year: 2015 Director: Alexandr Sokurov Writer: Alexandr Sokurov Starring: Louis-Do Lencquesaing, Benjamin Utzerath, Vincent Nemeth Runtime: 88 minutes