An impressionistic portrait of the Louvre Museum under Nazi occupation, Alexander Sokurov’s Francofonia reveals the chequered history of art.
Paris, Open Cityby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
A documentary on the occupation of the Louvre by Nazi forces, Alexander Sokurov’s Francofonia begs an urgent question: what’s the real difference between fiction and documentary? As his camera glides upwards through the streets of Paris, there’s a fictional sweep and gloss to his imagery. Furthered by metaphorical video conversations with Captain Dirk carrying a container of priceless artwork through perilous storms across the oceans. As well as haunting images of bombers flying within the Louvre’s vaults and enigmatic embodiments of Marianne who instils the French museum collection with a spirit of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” and Napoleon, whose war booty became the fundament of the museum’s collection, and who converted the palace into a state museum – a kind of early media propaganda with artwork glorifying his military campaigns and coronation. There’s also the could-have-been fiction of the meeting between the museum’s director Jacques Jaujard and the German soldier responsible for securing the Reich’s monuments and artworks Count von Wolff-Metternich, as together they collaborate and resist the all-devouring appetite of the Nazi leaders. Only the archive footage is documentary in its truest form, but with such rare footage of a depopulated Paris and sleeping German soldiers, reality is caught under fiction’s spell – Sokurov’s ruminations on the ascendency of art over politics, the real people caught in the gallery’s artwork and the importance of museums for a nation. “What is left of France without its Louvre?” Focusing on the vulnerability of art as it rides the waves of war, rather than the politics or specifics or Jaujard’s relationship with Metternich, Sokurov’s Francofonia makes for an exquisite frieze, with only some occasional overly contrived musings from Marianne and Napoleon to spoil the composition. But an exceptional, experimental, genre-defying fusion of Russian Ark and Moloch, Alexander Sokurov’s Francofonia is intelligent, informative and utterly spellbinding.
Francofonia is now showing at the London Film Festival