In the United States, and western Europe as well, film-making and the mass media are controlled by cosmopolitan Left-leaning internationalists. In Russia, of course, the situation is different: the most acclaimed Russian director, Alexander Sokurov, is an associate of Vladimir Putin, apparently, a pious Orthodox believer, and a staunch Nationalist. (I think Tarkovsky and Alexei German could be similarly described as Christian Russian Nationalists.) Sokurov's most well-known film, his formidable Russian Ark, contends that St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum is the ark that will preserve the high culture of Europe from the nihilism of the West. As with Dostoevsky, Sokurov seems to believe that the Russians are the saviors of European civilization -- it is Russia that has withstood the twin forces of barbarism in modern times: German Fascism and, now, Islamic Nationalism. Sokurov's thinking in this regard is well-illustrated by his film Alexandria, a picture in which a Russian mother visits her son at the front in Chechnya -- she travels to the theater of war with the Islamic radicals in an armored train, a conveyance redolent with meaning in Russia, and, as the film progresses, seems to become nothing less than an allegorical figure for Mother Russia. Francophonia is Sokurov's reprise for our time of his Russian Ark -- in the film, he considers Paris' Louvre, like the Hermitage one of the great repositories of European culture, and asks this question: how was the museum and its collection of art saved from Nazi expropriation? Sokurov has already answered that question with respect to the Hermitage -- he says that the European art in St. Petersburg was saved by Russian military resistance and imagines the 900 day siege of Leningrad as the price paid to protect the Hermitage. Sokurov has explicitly said that the Russians sacrificed one million lives to save the Hermitage from being looted by the Germans. Francophonia, a very surprising and profound film, relies upon the viewer's knowledge of the Russian Ark and, in fact, seems to be designed as counterpoint to the earlier picture. Notwithstanding some horrors, the film is peculiarly cheerful, gentle, and, oddly optimistic in some respects. The film about Leningrad, the Russian Ark, was famously accomplished in a herculean single take -- a feat of camerawork actually performed by a brawny German director of photography. The hellish "dance of death" required to film the first movie -- the German DP lugging his steadi-cam across acres of museum with Sokurov feverishly directing the action, including historical reenactments, ventures out into the frigid and snowy gardens, a full-scale costume ball, and, in the final scene, hundreds of extras, seems to have been intended as an ordeal, a kind of cinematic Passion devised as a correlative to the nightmarish siege. By contrast, Francophonia is fluently edited without any operatic effects: in general, the film is muted, modest in scope, and cautiously understated. This doesn't mean that the film hasn't been the subject of obsessive labor -- Sokurov once boasted (about his film The Sun on the relationship between General Douglas McArthur and Emperor Hirohito) that his movie had more special effects and digital manipulation than a Star Wars picture. Francophonia is shot on various kinds of film stock and features just about every imaginable type of special effect -- skies are digitally altered to seem as if they have been produced by brushstrokes, color schemes are continuously adjusted to create strange unnatural sepia-hazes or weird orange-yellow tints; on several occasions, Sokurov digitally adds World War Two German bombers to his images -- in one case, a full-size bomber tours the courtyards of Louvre, floating over the buildings
like a balloon. Sokurov stages period scenes with no regard to the crowds milling around the museum or walking next to the Seine. In the foreground, we see costumed actors while vehicles circa 2014 drive by in the background. The detailed nature of these manipulations of imagery is exemplified by the eye-color of the Prussian cultural attaché assigned management of the Louvre during the German occupation. During the first scenes with this German officer, his eyes are a startling cobalt blue. In the final scenes, the German officer's eyes are dark and show no trace of blue at all. For Sokurov, the intensity of blue pigment in the German's eyes is a measure of the officer's cooperation with his French counterpart: when he is aggressively German, the man's eyes are a startling blue; when he is cooperating with Frenchman, his eyes become dark, the same hue as the French museum director's eyes.
Francophonia revolves around three couples: Napoleon and Marianne, Sokurov and Captain Dirk, and, most importantly Count Metternich, a German officer, and Messieur Jaujard, a Frenchman responsible for the Louvre. Napoleon and Marianne (the Phrygian-cap wearing French revolutionary who appears topless in Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People") seem to be, more or less, automatons: Napoleon wanders among the pictures declaring with respect to each, "C'est moi." Marianne has only three words that she recites again and again: Liberty, Fraternity, Equality. As far as I can ascertain, these two figures represent the mindlessly acquisitive, martial instinct to loot other people's art and the Enlightenment spirit that declared that the products of this looting should be displayed in a museum open to all. Captain Dirk is an American, seen as a pale, slug-like figure on Skype -- Dirk is transporting art across the sea and is trapped in a violent and deadly storm. Ultimately, his shipping vessel seems to be swamped by the sea, sinks, and the art is lost. His interlocutor is Sokurov who we see in a dim room communicating by telephone and computer with Dirk. Dirk's image keeps freezing and collapsing into chaotic pixels. Sokurov and Dirk embody the filmmaker's metaphor that a museum is a vessel crossing dangerous seas. The seas are those of history, or literal seas, or, perhaps, the chaotic emotions that we conceal within us. These seas always threaten to overflow and drown our civilization. Finally, Count Metternich is a German military officer who has been sent to loot the Louvre. The French have already concealed the art in the Louvre in various hiding places -- only some of the statues remain in the museum. Metternich meets with Jaujard and the two men, although initially hostile, seem to respect one another. Ultimately, Jaujard persuades Metternich to not expropriate the treasures of the Louvre. Metternich temporizes and has trouble explaining why he has not looted the Louvre for the Nazis. In the end, Jaujard trusts him sufficiently to show him the cellar at remote chateau where Gericault's "Raft of the Medusa" -- another image of a sea-going vessel wrecked on the high seas -- is hidden, stacked against a wall. In contrast, the Germans can not work cooperatively with the Bolsheviks who they regard as subhuman enemies of civilization -- Sokurov cuts into the film horrific footage of the siege of Leningrad with accounts of cannibalism. The curious thing about the film is that it's message is politically indistinct -- both the Russians and the French preserved their world-historical treasures of art: the Russians achieved this by military resistance at the cost of a million casualties; the French achieved the same outcome by seeming to cooperate with the Germans, by winning their trust, and, then, by the simple expedient of encouraging delays with respect to implementing the expropriation of art objects. Sokurov doesn't suggest which approach is better although the answer seems fairly obvious -- the French use of "soft power" saved the art and avoided mass killing. Sokurov tells this fable in reconstructed scenes of encounters between the two men -- these images are projected in a golden sepia haze, pillar-boxed in old format aspect-ratio, with the soundtrack visible as a band on the left side of the image. The film is discursive -- there are essays on ancient sculpture, the history of the Louvre, the absence of portraiture in Muslim art, and the French resistance. At the end of the movie, Sokurov speaks to the two men, summoning them into a niche where two chairs are awaiting, and, then, tells them about their futures: Jaujard became a national hero and died in 1967; Metternich was recalled from Paris for his dilatory conduct in conducting the looting of the Louvre. He was denazified after the war and lived an uneventful life until 1978. (The principal narrative in Francophonia, Jaujard's manipulation of Metternich, the admirer of French culture, reminds me of recent revelations about Heisenberg's attempts to design an atom bomb for Hitler. Heisenberg apparently determined that it would not be in civilization's best interests to create an atomic bomb for the Nazis. So what did he do? He didn't resist Hitler or lecture him on morality, nor did he aggressively try to design the weapon. Instead, he told Hitler that, in his view, it would "be impossible for Germany to build an atomic bomb" while its economy was on a war-time footing. Hitler apparently accepted this advice and diverted most of its efforts away from the A-bomb project.)
Sokurov seems to be mellowing. His excellent film The Sun demonstrated a way for men who were enemies to go forward in the best interests of their respective nations. McArthur and Hirohito find a way to work together that saves the Emperor's "face" and allows him to be a spokesman and advocate for McArthur's occupation policies. Similarly, Jaujard and Metternich find a way to work cooperative to save the French from losing their art treasures, and to keep the Germans from committing a great and unnecessary crime. The vision of Francophonia is fundamentally humane and, more important, perhaps, sane -- no one does anything dramatic nor does anyone act on naked principle. The film shows that sometimes the best results occur simply when someone pretends to cooperate but really doesn't and when his adversary fails to act, that is, simply delays. These are important lessons worthy of being learned.