Francophonia: History, Film, Power


Alexander Sokurov plumbs the depths of history in his new film Francofonia, a kaleidoscope of philosophical, historical, and aesthetic rumination.

By Francis Russo - New York City, NY

History: oceanic, asleep. How upon it – against it – can we act?

Alexander Sokurov plumbs the depths of this question in his new film Francofonia, a kaleidoscope of philosophical, historical, and aesthetic rumination in celluloid form. The film is a clear cousin to Sokuro’s more widely known Russian Ark, a cinematic tour of Russian history through the Hermitage Museum, though it moves west to Paris and to the Louvre. Sokurov’s relocated geography of inquiry will delight Francophiles the globe over, but the film is considerably more than a gloried paean to the city of light and its famous palace-turned-temple-of-art. Asking questions of France, Europe, and humanity more broadly, what Sokurov is truly after is the tripartite relationship of history, humanity, and art. What is this seismic and indiscriminate march of history that consumes our experience? What is this ceaseless passage of time that confines what we do not preserve to eternal, inaccessible sleep? How does art influence our understanding of this force? When history becomes tragedy, how does art define our humanity? And – ultimately – must we yield to all this? Can we act against it? Sokurov undertakes something both noble and intricate here, and wholly succeeds in doing it.

If nothing else, everyone will agree the film looks and sounds beautiful. Its style is a salad of forms unified by a persistent visual beauty; a patchwork of amber aged photographs, pixelated Skype calls, twilight galleries, Birdseye flights over Paris, and recreated color nitrate stock in yellowed ‘40’s glow. The film’s aural atmosphere is at times soft, at times arresting. Distant echoes and crushing snaps of storming seas equally reach to the bone. The orchestral score lurches in mesmerizing agony as if atonality were pulled through a tonal meat grinder, or vice versa.

Sokurov’s characters are as much a salad as the film’s images and sounds. A fictionalized Sokurov ruminates aloud from his book-lined study after completing a new film. He struggles to maintain a Skype connection with “Dirk,” a ship captain somewhere in the North Atlantic. Dirk battles a tempest with a ship full of museum treasures, the specific contents of which we do not know. In a separate episode, an allegorical Marienne (Johanna Korthals Altes), embodiment of French Republican ideals, and a confident Napoleon (Vincent Nemeth) run through an empty Louvre after hours. Sokurov includes a film within the film, the fictional Sokurov’s most recent production: a story of the Louvre during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Its two protagonists are 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 of French art. The pair uneasily navigate their mutual uncertainty, but learn to see each other’s sympathies, sentiments, and, eventually, their future.

The fundamental concept of the film is immediately apparent in Dirk’s struggle on the freighter. “Museum freight” is all Sokurov allows us to know of the cargo Dirk is carrying. Egyptian scrolls? Mannerist paintings? Ming Dynasty treasures? We are not told, and it does not matter. What matters is the imperiled condition in which the freight finds itself: threatened with extinction against the indiscriminate crush of the ocean, or, if one accepts the metaphor, the crush of history, time, and its tremendous capacity to erase. What can be done against this force? Are humans condemned to submit, or can they act? The fictional Sokurov tries, in vain, to keep calling Dirk. Skype proves useless and broken, just as Dirk’s ship, with its unknown but precious cargo, ends up broken across the sea. The film appears unwilling to suggest optimism. Even if Sokurov’s connection had improved, what could he do but be a helpless, useless witness? Dirk, even in his privileged proximity to the impending disaster, is equally helpless, and faces the same threat of destruction as the museum treasures he carries. What can we do against the ocean?

But why do we care to so much about Dirk’s unknown cargo in the first place? Sokurov taps humanity’s curiosity to know the unknowable, to access the inaccessible. It is precisely the urge that triggers the impulse to preserve what is known and to recover what is lost, and is principally manifest, on a societal level, through artifacts and art. It is a great source of both fascination and lament to consider the scores of poetry, literature, music, art, architecture, and artifacts lost to war, accident, ignorance, or decay across the ages. What was in the Library of Alexandria? What still might be sealed in Egyptian tombs? Sokurov points out the innumerable ships lost to the sea during the nineteenth century’s museum craze, carrying treasures from all corners of the world that now lay at the bottom of the ocean. We are fascinated, yet do not even know what those ships carried; our imagination alone furnishes our idea of what lies on the seabed. Here again is the intriguing double abstraction in Dirk’s case: not only is something is lost; we do not even know what it was in the first place. Stories of the lost treasures of history not only excite our curiosity, but also invite, and thus flatter, our sense of imagination. We are desperate to know, and zealous dreamers.

These impulses reach far beyond fascination with artifacts themselves. What lies on the seabed are not just aesthetic objects, but tokens around which experience was once alive. To most historians or lovers of antiques, this idea is immediately apparent. An antique is not only an object qua object, but also, somehow, and more importantly, a vessel that carries with it the sleeping vastness of history. The walls of the Louvre are not just beautiful; they are also imbued with the humanity that has passed before them. These walls, one imagines, once saw great Kings and Queens, Napoleon, Hitler, and all the mundane superfluities of human experience in between. Equally, a bronze mug in the British Museum is not just a bronze mug; a porcelain bowl in the Met is not just a porcelain bowl. They are things once used, things with which someone once lived, and they hold those experiences within them.

If one considers human experience along with humanity’s physical productions, the loss to the force of history is even more incalculable. Nearly all that exists in the realm of thought, of experience, of feeling – the true stuff of our lives – is inevitably lost, or, more precisely, made irrevocably inaccessible with the passage of time. Thus unto artifacts and art we attach and imagine this stuff, which otherwise has no way of being preserved outside the dubious confines of human memory. Even literal representations of past experience capture so little of actual life. One sees an old photograph, for example, with unknown faces and knows almost nothing of their universe. One cannot help but wonder, what is that face thinking? What was the universe associated with that face, that person? Who was its mother? Did it love? Did it hate? We are insatiably curious yet cannot know. Perhaps this is a feeling reserved for the historically minded. But no one can escape the fact that the historical record is an infinitesimal fraction of all that has past. Artifacts, yes, but experience too, the incalculable heaps of it, are also lost to war, neglect, ignorance, and, most of all, to the simple creep of time. Whatever the method, history forces disappearance. Things burn, we forget. They are lost, gone, asleep forever.

Thus Sokurov’s obsession with “waking up” in the film: a dozed-off solider woken by his comrades, characters who tap on the glass cases of sleeping mummies, Sokurov himself who tells Tolstoy, asleep in an old photograph, “wake up!” One wants to know the experiences artifacts hold, locked in endless sleep. One sees them and demands, wake. Tell us your story. Assyrian winged bulls hold in their stone the universe of a civilization, just as a face in a photograph holds a universe of a life. Wake up! Tolstoy, tell us your secrets. Speak, Mona Lisa, tell us what it was like in DaVinci’s studio, or how it felt to be whisked away and hidden in the French countryside. What have you seen? There is no record of the overwhelming majority of history, the phantasmagorical experience of everyday life. It is gone, but these things once saw it. If they could only wake!

It is this confrontation with the prospect of eternal sleep that adds to the sublime experience of art and artifacts. 

Eternal sleep is part of the human fascination with museums, with artifacts, with old pictures. Faced with the prospect of disappearance over time – of death – museums create the illusion of preventing such erasure. This is the impulse behind the construction of every monument in world history, every wish for an eternal afterlife, and every desire to keep a photograph of a deceased loved one.

However there is another side of museums that does not ameliorate a bad feeling but creates one. Coming face to face with artifacts and art forces us to confront this deeply unpleasant and immutable force of history, whether one likes it or not. It ignites within us that curiosity which can never be satisfied and makes us ache with frustration that we are helpless to wake all things in museums, that we must accept the fact of irrevocable loss. But mixed with aesthetic beauty, this anxiety and fear becomes a cathartic concoction half Apollonian, half Dionysian. It is this confrontation with the prospect of eternal sleep that adds to the sublime experience of art and artifacts. 

But must we accept this as it is? Despite the bleak prospect of Dirk’s struggle, Sokurov also accepts, at the start of the film, that there is an ocean inside each of us. Must not some individuals, some ideas, hold the power to act against this ultimate force that puts to sleep all that we do? Sokurov probes this idea with the French Revolution: Napoleon marches belly first through the Louvre, pointing out paintings of himself. “That’s me,” he declares, as if to validate his existence and confirm his importance in and against history. There is also a wistful Marienne, who whispers over and over the Revolution’s motto, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” She and Napoleon, together the chiaroscuro pairing of France’s republican ideals and its imperial ambitions, glide through a twilight Louvre, after hours, emptied of the crowds, in a cavernous space as if under an ocean. Surely, the French Revolution had agency? It mattered in history? “I brought this all here,” Napoleon boasts, evidencing his power through the movement of art. Indeed, during his lifetime much of the Louvre’s holdings were the consequence of Napoleonic conquests. Surely war, in an instant, can do more than decades, Sokurov points out. But can it do more than the ocean of history? Or are Bonaparte and Marienne, like Dirk and Sokurov, ultimately helpless against it? Under Sokurov’s direction, Napoleon’s declarations of self in front of his portraits are humorous, but also pitiable. There is a camp element in his charade that makes him look silly in the extreme. The power and relevance he holds in his portraits have been consumed by time, and his assertions of self imply a deep insecurity. Meanwhile Marienne is aloof, fragile, scared, and almost insane in her unawareness of anything but her incessant recantations. Outside of their fictionalized aliveness in the film, they are both things of the past, asleep. Is it all any more than Marienne’s whispers?

Set alongside Sokurov’s ruminations, Dirk’s seaborne distress, the documentary history of the Louvre, and Napoleon and Marienne, another story, set during World War Two, emerges for Sokurov tests his ideas. In the face of the Nazis, he asks, did Europe’s past not seem “all a dream?” Its painting, sculpture, literature, even Napoleon, gone? When the Nazis marched on Paris, almost all of the Louvre’s treasures save the monumental statuary had been evacuated to chateaus in the countryside. Through the story of Jaujard and Wolff-Metternich, Sokurov reminds us that the movement, preservation, and existence of art – our salvation against the crush of history – is irrefutably contingent upon the operations of power. These operations are not always clear, and all that Sokurov present is far too large to tackle here. The various forms of collaboration, compromise, sympathy, and ideology of the powerful and powerless in any context have huge literatures and not enough readers.

Something the wartime episodes in the film do demonstrate, once again, is humanity’s curiosity with artifacts and the secrets they hold. What must have it been like for the first Nazis to enter the Louvre? Sokurov is clearly intrigued by this question. He could have folded the Jaujard Wolff-Metternich story into a documentary episode, but instead presents it as a fictional recreation, sure to show us its sinews (unedited trail ends of film, the sound marker on screen, and so on) to highlight that it is a creation, an imagination of the kind in which we all engage while contemplating the lost experience surrounding artifacts. The walls are asleep, and wont respond. Faced with this prospect, like the rest of us, Sokurov imagines, dramatizes.

The war also gives Sokurov and opportunity to ruminate on identity. What is the Louvre without France? What is France without the Louvre? If Hitler had succeeded, could a French-Nazi existence been possible? Could the swastika have flown over the Louvre, its paintings returned under a new French-Nazi state? Could collaborators like Jaujard, who chose compromise over resistance, have made permanent peace with German rule? Most powerfully, Sokurov probes the nature of humanity’s identity through art and occupation. Was the relative normalcy of Paris under Nazi occupation in part a result of the conflation between a people and its art? Did the Nazi interest in preserving Paris as a cultural capital depend in some way on the contents of the Louvre? Sokurov bitterly contrasts Paris during German rule with the siege of Leningrad, whose citizens, unlike Parisians, starved and froze and whose cultural inheritance, namely, the Hermitage, was not spared. What was the difference? Was art and humanity fused in one case but not the other? In what ways can art define, or determine, humanity, and how can it not? Who has the power to make such determinations? One leaves the film alive with these questions brimming from Sokurov’s careful reflections.

Sokurov’s most profound point also has to do with identity. What would I be without seeing the faces of those that came before me? Sokurov poses this question during a discussion of European portraiture. Why did portraiture develop in Europe and not in the Middle East? More importantly, how is the self in Europe developed by portraiture? Surely, the presence of art must mean something, must change something. So must its absence. Are not the contents of the Louvre, the Louvre itself, the incalculable visual memes of Paris, slowly, from birth, by repeated exposure, etched into the self of every individual who lives surrounded by them? Just as with language, art, in its broadest sense, initiates us into the tacit understanding of reality built into the social practices of our specific communities. This is true of Paris, of France, of the West, or of any part of the world with a visual culture; identity is necessarily, unconsciously, structurally created by art. Just by virtue of being around art, it becomes us, and we become it, in a most literal way. In one passage of the film, Napoleon and Marienne scrutinize the Mona Lisa. “It’s me,” Napoleon says. Yes, it is him; it is all of us. We are the collections of things we have seen and what we see is part of who we are. This is not necessary something to romanticize; in Foucauldian terms, this entire schema perpetuates forms of power that dominate and oppress us, forcing us into molds without improving our lives. Whatever its connotations, humanity creates art, but is also created by it.

Insofar as omissions are concerned, Francofonia forgoes contemporary politics even while their shadows are easy to spot. France’s – Europe’s – current identity crisis, Russia’s resurgent nationalism, and even ISIS, in its destruction of the ancient ruins at Palmyra, are easily recalled while thinking through the ideas in Sokurov’s film. The most striking omission, though, is notable because it is the largest act of erasure in human history. The Holocaust is not even apparent in the shadows of the film. Wholly absent, its non-existence is another layer of the Sokurov’s film to ponder.

The non-constraints of his cinematic style are perhaps the best occasion for attempting to make the incomprehensible comprehensible, entertaining both a “hermeneutics” as well as an “erotics” of art.

Why must we imagine? Why all the curiosity? To stand in the face of the ocean, what could possibly be more compelling? More exhilarating? It is the undoing of us all and yet its terrifying depth is endlessly captivating. Sokurov is a serious director interested in philosophical films and seems to posses an intelligence and discretion equal to the task. He also recognizes that the historical impulse is not simply that of an inquest into the facts, but an enterprise that is beyond the purely intellectual and beyond the desire for palatable, ameliorative answers. The non-constraints of his cinematic style are perhaps the best occasion for attempting to make the incomprehensible comprehensible, entertaining both a “hermeneutics” as well as an “erotics” of art. This is all manifest in Francofonia, a film that will long outlive its time in theaters.

What would I be without seeing the faces of those that came before me? If we are, in the end, helpless against the force of history, let us at least see more art, and one another. Let us be more art.


Francis Russo