Issue 53 (2016)

Aleksandr Sokurov: Francofonia (2015)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers© 2016

francofoniaFrancofonia first screened at the Venice Film Festival in September 2015, having obviously failed to make it into competition at Cannes, where it had been expected to feature, seeing that it is a French-German-Dutch co-production but also a film set in and talking about the Louvre, with many more connections to France than Italy. However, this counterpart to Sokurov’s magnificent Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg), that famous 90-minute single-take on a digital drive shot in 2002, is a long way away from the flow and the (comparative) coherence of narrative of his masterpiece.

Francofonia could not disrupt the viewer’s experience more, visually and acoustically creating a set of onslaughts onto the spectator’s perception. And yet it is precisely the agility and lightness with which Sokurov handles these “onslaughts” that makes this film a worthy counterpart to the Russian Ark. Indeed, a vessel—the ark—stands at the centre of the narrative: a ship transports some cargo across the turbulent sea. Apparently this cargo consists of the entire collection of a museum that remains unnamed. Sokurov speaks with the ship’s captain, Dirk, via skype (a first level of media meta-commentary), yet the sound often breaks when the connection becomes unstable, and the image pixelates. The ship is caught up in a storm and in danger of sinking, unless the captain ditches some of the precious cargo. Human life or art—this is Sokurov’s question, and his answer goes uncomfortably in the direction of art, although not explicitly: instead, his concerns in the skype conversations are with the cargo rather than the crew, and his comments condemn the transportation of art works in the first place.

francofoniaLet us remind ourselves of Russian Ark, where the Hermitage functions as an ark, doomed to sail forever, protecting within it the heritage of European high culture; Russia here functions as the savior of European art. If the ark that is the Hermitage is loaded with the largest European art collection and Russia’s history, sealed hermetically and set to sail forever, we may wonder about its destination. It appears that this ark will never dock but float eternally in a grey and murky non-space, the wasteland of history outside the impressive buildings of the Hermitage which, after the end of the historical timeline covered in Russian Ark, would be looted and devastated by agents of history—whether the Bolsheviks or the Nazis appears to make little difference for Sokurov. What matters for him is that Russia has saved and protected European culture over centuries, often at the cost of human lives (we remember the million people who perished in the Leningrad Siege, a price worth paying for the precious cargo in the ship, if we follow the debate that Custine and the Narrator have outside the Hermitage’s room with the empty frames). Francofonia reiterates that “the Hermitage, Russia’s answer to the Louvre, was spared the Nazi scourge at the cost of no less than one million victims” (Anon. 2015).

francofoniaFrancofonia is another excursion into a museum space. This time, Sokurov takes us not on a journey through time and history in a single breath but, on the contrary, whirls us around between the history of art objects and their conquest under Napoleon, the Louvre during the Occupation in 1940–42, World War II and the present; between Paris, St Petersburg and a vessel sailing in a stormy ocean; between still photographs and newsreel footage, fiction film images and fragmented and pixelated Skype footage from a ship on a computer screen. The continuity of Russian Ark is deliberately ruptured here on all levels, including the visual, as an optical sound track is running along part of the historical footage, while old photographs remain in sepia tones. Both Tolstoy and Chekhov, in moving and still images, appear in the film: they can no longer comment, but they both held strong views on art. As if this was not enough, Sokurov brings to life the character of Marianne with her Revolutionary slogans of “freedom, equality and fraternity” (liberté, égalité, fraternité) as she roams through the rooms of the Louvre alongside Napoleon Bonaparte.

While telling the story about the protection during the Occupation of art work contained in the Louvre, two individuals are singled out as the saviors of European cultural heritage, marking a contrast to the collective effort made by the Russian people during the war. It is thanks to the loyalty and devotion of these two individuals, Franz Wolff-Metternich, who was in charge of culture in France during the German Occupation, and Jacques Jaujard, the director of the national museums of France (including the Louvre) that the collection of the Louvre remained intact and in France. Jaujard transported the paintings from the capital to Sourches, among them the oversize canvas (at 5 by 7 meters) of Theodore Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818), tellingly depicting the wreck of a stranded ship, which was shown to Wolff-Metternich during an inspection. Tasked with operation Kunstschatz that was aimed at preserving cultural heritage from the destruction of the war by transporting it to Germany, Wolff-Metternich made no effort to do so, despite Hitler’s orders; he thus saved France’s cultural heritage from destruction or appropriation.

francofoniaIn the contemporary world, the ark of the past has turned into a real vessel that transports a precious cargo: “and it could be that Sokurov is saying that this is what museums are: container ships with vast amounts of vulnerable freight” (Bradshaw 2015). Art is part of global transportation networks, and nothing special. Sokurov, who was able to capture the content of the ark in his native St Petersburg, cannot do anything to rescue the collection from the drowning ship. This is Europe’s cargo today—at a time quite unlike the war period, when people risked their lives and careers to protect art (Wolff-Metternich was recalled to Germany in 1942 due to his refusal to repatriate the art works). In the past art was often a reason for warfare and conquest, stripping other cultures of their heritage and roots, uprooting them and depriving them of an identity. For Sokurov, these roots were European in Russian Ark, when Russia assisted Europe in preserving its roots. In Francofonia there is no cultural differentiation between Russia, Germany or France in terms of belonging: the Hermitage during the Siege, German museums during the Blitz, or the empty Louvre—they all require protection, yet Europe alone cannot save its cargo: isolated in a storm, and strangely without any other link than to a Russian filmmaker at home in his study, the ship sinks.

Sokurov suggests, then, that Europe should stay out of Russia’s missionary path: the Russian ark remains safely docked in St Petersburg, where it harbors and preserves Europe’s heritage: Europe itself is but a pale reflection of its past—nothing as extravagant, colorful and lively as the historical scenes of the Winter Palace. Europe’s past consists of black-and-white fiction films and newsreels, sepia-tinted still photos, dimly lit, lonely and ghostly figures of Napoleon and Marianne, the pale characters of Wolff-Metternich and Jaujard: these are spectral characters of different times. Yet the past and the present do not intersect: time is out of joint, the ship sinks, and with it old Europe. Sokurov’s prediction for the future of Europe and its culture could not be darker.

Birgit Beumers
Aberystwyth University, Wales

Comment on this article on Facebook

Works Cited

Anon. (2015), ‘Francofonia’ Review, Screen Daily 4 September.

Bradshaw, Peter (2015), ‘Francofonia review – eerie look at the Louvre's vulnerable freight’, The Guardian 4 September.


Francofonia, France, Germany, Netherlands, 2015
Color, 88 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov
Scriptwriter: Aleksandr Sokurov
Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel
Editing: Aleksei Iankovskii, Hansjorg Weissbrich
Costumes: Colome Lauriot-Prevost
Music: Murat Kabardokov
Cast: Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Benjamin Utzerath, Vincent Nemeth, Johanna Korthals Altes, Andrey Chelpanov, Jean-Claude Caer with the voices of Aleksandr Sokurov, Francois Smesny, Peter Lontzek
Production companies: Ideale Audience, Zero One Film, N279 Entertainment
Producers: Pierre-Olivier Bardet, Thomas Kufus, Els Vandevorst

Aleksandr Sokurov: Francofonia (2015)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers© 2016

Updated: 11 Jul 16