What is the purpose of a museum? To showcase the history of a nation? To eternalise past atrocities caused by humanity? Director Alexander Sokurov poignantly depicts art’s role in politics through Francofonia’s exploration of the cultural wounds of war.
The film maintains an eerie atmosphere from the beginning, with the narrator’s almost poetic script taking us through the Nazi occupation during World War 2. Director Alexander Sokurov himself opens the film talking to Captain Dirk on a struggling ship transporting art pieces to an unknown museum. So begins Sokurov’s playful interpretation of reality within this piece. Captain Dirk is unwilling to let go of the cargo to save his doomed ship, the cargo representing an entire nation’s culture personified in art. Perhaps this represents the true purpose of a museum: to contain the history of humanity. For what would history be without art? What would we know?
The narrative of the piece unfurls with the growing relationship between the museum’s director Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do De Lencquesaing) and the German Count Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzareth) who enters to assess the remainder of The Louvre’s pieces in occupied Paris. At the beginning the well depicted cool composure of Jaujard and the meticulous nature of Wolff-Metternich makes for an icy relationship. However as the film progresses an almost unspoken agreement is born between the two as both accept art’s role in politics; to preserve French Nationalism and as propaganda for successful occupation. Parallels are drawn to the Nazi treatment of the East, with the shocking brutality and destruction Russia was subjected to under occupation.
Sokurov documents these very poignant messages in a mixture of historical recollection and archive footage with dramatized reconstructions and ghostly narrators. It is a bizarre mix and at times the purpose of the ghosts’ roles are unclear. The Napoleon figure (Vincent Nemeth) lays claims to all art he pillaged whilst his unexplained counterpart Marianne (Johanna Korthals Altes) exhausts the message of the film of liberty, equality and brotherhood. Woven into this narrative is awe-inspiring footage of the pieces housed within the Louvre and the stories they represent. In particular, the drone footage of modern day Paris is both engaging and inspiring in its clarity. However, the mix of fantasy reconstruction to archive footage can feel at times a bit random.
Francofonia does not yet have a UK release date. This is part of the Documentary competition in the 59th London Film Festival.
Watch the trailer for Francofonia here: