Alexander Sokurov last came to Venice in 2011 with Faust, his oneiric take on the famous tale, taking home the Golden Lion. He returns to the Lido with Francofonia, a far less demanding and more accessible film though lacking Faust’s inventiveness.
Sokurov is our protagonist, sitting alone in his apartment and engaging with the world via Skype as he sifts through the history of the Louvre and in particular its vicissitudes during World War Two. We meet Captain Dirk, who is aboard a giant container ship that has left Rotterdam laden with artistic treasures. The ship battles the waves as it sails through the tempest, Dirk flickering on the screen and gradually reduced to a myriad of broken pixels. And this perilous journey on the high seas is symbolic of all art’s journeys throughout the ages.
Focusing on the Louvre during WWII and the museum’s efforts to save and conceal its contents from the looting Germans – many of them connoisseurs of fine art – Sokurov turns his attention to those contents: statues from ancient Assyria, portraits, sculptures and of course the Mona Lisa. What the contents share is that they have almost all been part of a marauding army’s booty, the history of art going hand in hand with the history of war.
Sokurov also brings back to life the Frenchman and German officer who were in charge of the Louvre during German occupation. Jacques Jaujard was the museum’s director and Franziskus Wolff-Metternich was the officer sent by the Nazis to find and recuperate the hidden works. The former was a republican who worked with the resistance and the latter an aristocratic Nazi yet both men shared a love of art and Sokurov is interested in the idea that during the war there was a notion that France and Germany could somehow become a single state with shared interests and histories, a precursor to the European Union.
However, he shows that not all Europeans were considered equal, and his images and harrowing tales of Leningrad under siege are horribly similar to scenes from Syria and other contemporary battle zones. So, is the film a depressing indictment of humanity’s incapacity to change? Sokurov leaves the question dangling as we are left with the image of the storm-struck vessel.
Yet his film – which was financed by various European organisations, including the Louvre and the Hermitage – also shows that we share common bonds; that art can bring nations together and that even in the darkest times of war people are concerned with salvaging and protecting these works. With its use of fake and real archive footage, its multiplicity of European languages, and its humour, this is a work of art – perhaps not a masterpiece, but Sokurov is turning into something of a treasure himself.