Alexander Sokurov has a fair claim as Russia’s most distinguished living film-maker. A Golden Lion winner at Venice for his film Faust, and a perennial presence at major festivals, he has many influential admirers. “I wept and wept, from start to finish,” rock star Nick Cave stated after seeing Sokurov’s 1997 film Mother and Son. Martin Scorsese called him “a pioneer” and supported the making of his “one-shot” feature Russian Ark (2002), filmed in a single 90-minute take in the Hermitage Museum. Russian president Vladimir Putin helped ensure the financing of Faust.
Sokurov’s new feature, Francofonia, was coproduced by the Louvre and partly shot in the museum when it was closed to the public and at night. The crew was there working next to the Mona Lisa for eight or nine days.
The film’s main preoccupation is with the Louvre under during the Second World War. With death and destruction all around them, the Louvre’s then-director Jacques Jaujard collaborated with Nazi officer Count Franziskus Wolff-Metternich to ensure that the museum’s treasures (most of which had been removed from Paris and hidden) weren’t pillaged by Hitler and his cronies.
Francofonia falls somewhere between documentary, dramatic feature and essay. It is playful and polemical by turns as it celebrates European culture – and also looks at Europeans’ gravitation toward war. Sokurov features on camera and narrates the film in a tremulous, poetic voice-over.
When I meet him on a secluded terrace of the Hotel Excelsior on the Venice Lido the day after the film’s Film Festival premiere there, Sokurov is in cheery, if strangely fatalistic, mood. He seems very downbeat about the state of Russian cinema – and about his own position. Putin may have helped get Faust financed but, the director claims, the president didn’t care for the movie.
“He didn’t like Faust. It wasn’t shown on television [in Russia]… it was in cinemas but for a very limited time. So there is no place for me in the Russian cinema world and never will be.” Putin praised Faust but Sokurov sounds sceptical about his motives. “The Russian participation in festivals is a sort of a political action – a political promotion by the Russian state.” As for the Golden Lion, that didn’t help to get the movie shown. “The bigger the prize, the less [the film] is popular.” The director adds that Russian cinema is currently under the control of the “oligarchs”.
“Russian cinema continues to exist. There are talented people and the Russian state invests money but I think a great part of this investment is distributed among oligarchs. We have film directors who are oligarchs and they have a large part of the pie,” Sokurov comments, citing the Oscar-winning Nikita Mikhalkov (Burnt by the Sun) as an example of a very powerful figure.
“I think the Russian people in general are predisposed toward cinema,” Sokurov continues, seeing at least some grounds for optimism. “The Russians are not good administrators. They are not good statesmen but we are good cinema directors, good engineers and good scientists… ”
Francofonia was entirely financed with French, German and Dutch backing. Sokurov’s own feelings toward Europe seem tinged with both affection and exasperation. “It’s like relations you have with close relatives,” he says. “We are intrinsically linked with Western Europe. We are the same family. We cannot do without each other. God almighty has put us on the same continent, as close neighbours. From childhood years, Europe for me is Mozart, Dickens, Zola, big German writers, artists, Romanticism, great British painters… it is a part of me from the beginning.” He talks of the mix of “respect and tension” that has always characterised Russia’s relations with Europe. “It’s a complex, mixed feeling.”
When the director first went to Paris years ago, he hated it. He found the locals callous and overbearing, “hustling in the restaurants and cafes, everybody in a hurry”. It was expensive too. The Louvre struck him as a vast “factory for the production of impressions. There were so many things that I was overwhelmed.” He left almost immediately but was to return many times.
Alongside the gorgeous imagery of the Louvre’s treasures, Francofonia features some very grim archive footage of Leningrad during the Second World War. While Jaujard and Wolff-Metternich were conspiring to stop the Nazis looting French artworks, millions across Europe were dying.
In the face of such devastation, doesn’t worrying about artworks seem a little inconsequential? “What can I say? Art is derivative from life. It takes its inspiration from life. It doesn’t have any other possible source – and the most important event in a work of art is the presence of death. Death is always there. Art just revolves, makes circles around death, without being able to answer questions about life and death, which are still open. In reality, the goal of art is to prepare man for the eventuality of death, to understand mentally that we are going to die.”
Such answers may suggest that Francofonia is grim. In fact, by the standards of some of the director’s earlier works, it is light-hearted. The film features scenes in which we see Napoleon, a conceited little man, staring at paintings of himself on the wall and coming face to face with the Mona Lisa – and seeming to see his own reflection in Leonardo’s masterpiece.
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