Russian director Alexander Sokurov apparently has a fascination with art galleries and national identity. In 2002, his Russian Ark, a 96-minute movie shot in one continuous take, spanned 300 years of the history of Saint Petersburg’s Winter Palace, a one-time home to the Russian czars currently functioning as part of the Hermitage Museum. An epic historical opus that depicted Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and the German siege of Lenningrad during the Second World War, it explored both Russian identity and the meaning of art.
In his latest movie, Francofonia, Sokurov has returned to similar themes. Focusing on the Louvre, the famed Paris art museum, Sokurov essays mainly–but not exclusively–its strained relationship with the German army during the Second World War. It’s now common knowledge that when Hitler’s armies occupied various European cities, leading Nazi officials would loot and steal works of art for their own personal collections. Francofonia focuses on the precarious relationship of Jacque Jaujard, who was the director of the Louvre during the occupation, and Franz von Wolff-Metternich, a German art historian hired by the German army to create an inventory of Parisian art. Together, the two men successfully hid many of the Louvre’s riches from the Nazis, keeping the museum’s collection largely in tact.
That’s the core of Francofonia‘s central narrative. However, this movie is by no means straight forward. Its structure is as fuzzy as Russian Ark, if not more so, blurring the line between documentary and fictionalized narrative, and it’s this blending of the two that makes the first half a challenge to watch. For example, the first scene starts off with an unnamed narrator–presumably a stand in for Sokurov–seen in silhouette talking via a Skype-like computer program to an unnamed man on a boat. The narrator describes his inability to finish editing his movie. It then cuts to clips of French movies from the 1930s-1940s before settling on its dominant narrative: a mixture of voice-over narrative and reenacted moments of the events during the Second World War. Yet, the movie takes deviant journeys, exploring Napoleon Bonaparte’s visits to the Louvre and a comparative analysis of the Louvre to the Hermitage.
Francofonia is a delightful deviation from the talking-heads structure of the typical documentary. Yet its narrative structure may make it a challenge for many people to sit through. And its sometimes meandering detours into philosophy and the underexplored narrative of the narrator and colleague on the boat serve as distracting asides. It’s a thoughtful if somewhat confusing execution of a little-discussed historical event.