Art, Culture and History
“Francofonia” is a look the real-life events that saved Paris’s Louvre Museum under the Nazi Occupation during World War II,. At the same time, it is also a look at art, power, history and virtue—and mankind’s place among them. This is the latest film by Russian director Alexander Sokurov and is both an historical documentary and a stylized drama, a film that is an extended cinematic essay that brings together fictionalized re-enactments of past events with excursions into scholarship and fantasy. The film is set against the backdrop of the Louvre Museum’s history and artworks. We meet Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), director of the Louvre in the 1930s and ’40s and Count Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath), Hitler’s designated connoisseur and conservator of French art. Both men worked to keep the museum open during the occupation and to protect its collection.
The negotiations between the two men are interspersed with Sokurov’s reflections on art and history and a tour of the museum’s galleries. We are guided on the tour by Marianne (Johanna Korthals), the symbol of liberty, equality and fraternity in Republican France, and Napoleon Bonaparte (Vincent Nemeth) who was the embodiment of the nation’s imperial ambitions. Together, they represent the idea of French universalism as they state that the Louvre is a living example of civilization.
The Louvre has more visitors than any museum in the world, yet its galleries are noticeably under populated. Aleksandr Sokurov’s film is a paean to museum. “Francofonia” shows the Louvre to be complicated, all-encompassing metaphor for (European) civilization itself. Sokurov asks via voiceover “What is France without the Louvre?” and “Who would we be without museums?”
These are broad questions that Sokurov pursues and “Francofonia” is most convincing when the filmmaker crystallizes his arguments through images that skirt the line between fact and fiction. When the attention turns toward the Louvre’s crown jewel, the Mona Lisa, the only visitors who get to dote on the painting are two incarnations of French nationalism— Napoleon Bonaparte (Vincent Nemeth), who, on seeing his own magnificence mirrored in the Mona Lisa’s smile, calls out repeatedly with smug glee, “C’est moi!” and the woman by his side is that great symbol of the French Republic, Marianne (Johanna Altes), who responds to the general’s ego by whispering her nation’s famous slogan: “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” he scene is convincing for its sharp, and no less humorous, take on the perpetual battle between bureaucratic power and the will of the people.
Francofonia zeroes in on this conflictive dynamic by examining the Louvre’s tenuous status during World War II, just after Hitler came to Paris and General Philippe Pétain fled south to Vichy, where he became prime minister. These scenes are shot with the patina of old, deteriorating film stock and show a fictionalized reenactment of the relationship between the Louvre’s one-time director, Jacques Jaujard (Louis-do de Lencquesaing), and the aristocratic Nazi officer and art historian Count Franziskus Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath). Sokurov expresses his admiration for Jaujard, as a prototypical Frenchman who, unlike Pétain, did not embrace retreat, refusing to leave his position at the Louvre. He found an ally in Metternich.
Together, the men made sure that the Louvre’s most treasured works weren’t looted by the Nazis, by hiding them away in suburban chateaus. Jaujard and Metternich’s collaboration represents a kind of subterfuge and is living proof that belief in art can overcome ideological differences. State, dangerously coincides with a desire for presentation (we see archival footage of Hitler patrolling Paris and Napoleon’s remark that he “went to war for art” maintains this belief). However if art is inevitably an area of national interest and underwritten by the powers that be, it doesn’t mean that bureaucracy always wins out. We see this in the efforts of Jaujard and Metterninch.
There are many freewheeling aerial shots and 360-degree pans of the Paris skyline throughout “Francofonia”, sweeping images that complement Sokurov’s overarching themes and we realize that this film is an unabashed portrayal of Gallic cultural contributions. Throughout the film, Sokurov will interrupt his commentary to get the latest update. “Francofonia” has the tone of an elegy that bids adieu to a bygone time when art and civilization were perhaps more closely intertwined and could similarly be thought of on more continuous terms.
This is a dense, enriching meditation on the Louvre, Paris and the role of art as an intrinsic part of the spirit of civilization. At the film’s core is the relationship between Jaujard and Metternich, vanquished and conqueror, and how both men were intent on protecting the Louvre’s treasures. By the time the Nazis rolled into Paris in 1940, almost all the works of art had already been transferred to a series of safer houses across France, but the highly cultured, French-speaking German aristocrat would go on to defy his commanders and continue to keep France’s museum holdings protected from deportation to the Third Reich.
Sokurov is a devoted Francophile and he wonders why the Nazis safeguarded Paris while deliberately destroying so many cities of Eastern Europe, especially Leningrad, whose Hermitage suffered so greatly during the War. Perhaps it is because Paris represents more than just France, just as the Louvre is more than a building full of extraordinary masterworks. Napoleon, of course, understood this, which is why so many of the Louvre’s holdings can be directly traced to him.
“Francofonia” also mixes formal conventions and it is multifaceted. At the center of Francofonia is a historical event that happened in 1940, a year into World War II. In occupied France, Jacques Jaudard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) was the director of the French National Museums, including the Louvre. He was no friend of the Nazis and successfully transported many works of art from the Louvre to homes where they be safely hidden. Meanwhile, Hitler assigned Count Franziskuz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath) to micromanage and eventually confiscate the art in the Louvre as part of the Kunstschutz effort. Hitler picked the wrong man for the job, though. Not a firm believer in the Third Reich, Metternich was an art historian who took his job seriously. He stalled sending back the works of Old Masters, ultimately saving world treasures from the grubby hands of Hitler, Goebbels, and Goering.
Sokurov shoots these dramatized historical events so that the scenes resemble long lost working footage for a movie. This is a brilliant rumination on art, history and death.