In Francofonia, director Alexander Sokourov blurs the line between documentary and narrative film; and more impressively, he makes the past almost indistinguishable from the present. His slow yet adroit film explores the Louvre museum, not only its beautiful halls and galleries, but also its place in Paris, in history, in the legacy of documentation. The movie turns the palatial rooms into haunted mausoleums, where the ghosts of recent and distant eras can cohabit them. By focusing mostly on the precarious period of German occupation during WWII, when the museum was threatened and then rescued by a heroic few, we can see that wars and museums share a complex relationship — that the former can destroy, or even bear, the latter. Sukourov goes beyond the common notion of a “war museum” when he explains how the land where the Louvre sits was originally settled as a defensive citadel against the vikings, or how its many ancient treasures were actually stolen by Napoleon’s imperial armies and brought back to Paris as trophies. To me, it evoked Hitler’s plan to build a Jewish museum to monumentalize the extinct race. Francofonia understands that men like Napoleon and Hitler dreamt not just to conquer the world, but also to conquer the past.
If they are the villains, the Louvre’s real-life administrator, Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), and the Nazi minister of art, Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath), are the heroes. They collaborated to protect the museum’s masterpieces, many of which were smuggled to the countryside before the Germans seized the city. Their scenes together fall somewhere between drama and dramatization, as if Sokourov seeks to obfuscate the common modes of documentary and narrative filmmaking. Archival footage reveals how the city around them had become a ghost town, since thousands of French citizens fled south following their government away from the onrushing army. (The French thereby made Paris an “open city”, in a surrender bargain that ensured protection for denizens and landmarks but at the cost of its autonomy; whereas a city like St. Petersburg, in contrast, maintained its freedom and was left in ruins.) The combination of cinematographic methods places Jaujard and Wolff-Metternich at once within history and beyond it, now part of the Louvre’s spectral legacy, where they can converse with the egotist Napoleon (Vincent Nemeth) and Marianne (Johanna Korthas Altes), a symbolic peasant who intones the dreams of the French Revolution.
Like in a Werner Herzog documentary, Sokourov narrates the story himself while simultaneously attempting to articulate its philosophical meaning. It’s not my favorite method of documentary narration, and the director even uses framing scenes where he edits the film, talks to himself (hence the voice-over), and struggles to communicate with a friend aboard a sinking freighter carrying a traveling gallery of art pieces. The scattershot threads of narrative can make the brief ninety minutes a tad lethargic. However, the film is magnificent when the camera studies the art itself, gazing almost obsessively with the adoring eyes of a curator God. From the portraiture of the Late Renaissance to the mythical statuettes of Ancient Assyria, Francofonia goes behind the velvet ropes, so close to the museum’s gems that you can smell the sculpted marble and oil paints. One shot seemed to say it all: the fingers of a sculpture hang down in close-up from the top of the frame, while human fingers rise up from the bottom and attempt to touch them; but since they are actually two separate shots superimposed, the fingers simply pass through one another. This singular, searching film knows what anyone who ever built, protected or even visited a museum seeks to find: a way to touch history.
Colonia Dignidad, the subject of the political thriller Colonia, was a political prison in Chile in the 1970’s. It was unique in that it shared its location with a religious cult, founded by an ex-Nazi named Paul Shafer (played by Michael Nyqvist in the film) who allowed the government use of the facility for interrogation and torture, while the government allowed the acolytes religious privacy and freedom. But, as the film reveals, that religiosity was a sham and the compound a subterfuge for Shafer to indulge his pedophilia consequence free. Colonia Dignidad is such a horrifyingly perfect symbol of the collusion between religious hypocrisy and state oppression that one almost cannot believe it’s not fictional. Inspired by true events, the movie follows Lena (Emma Watson), a German stewardess who joins the cult in order to rescue her socialist boyfriend, Daniel (Daniel Bruhl), after he’s arrested during the military coup by General Pinochet in 1973. There’s a metaphor somewhere here about how a totalitarian regime can turn a whole country into a nation of prisoners, but Colonia is too shallow to insightfully remark on its protagonists’ ordeal.
In the lead role, Watson is inarguably lovely as always, but she still strikes me as something of a lightweight dramatic actress. Commanding the screen — something Jennifer Lawrence and Saoirse Ronan do in their sleep — doesn’t come so naturally to her. Here, while she holds the center well, she makes Lena so singleminded in her mission that sometimes she seems indifferent to the suffering happening around her. Like in the scene where Shafer makes her grovel before a room of slut-shaming men, the character exudes too much strength and courage, to the extent that we’re never really worried about her. Bruhl, who I’ve liked since Inglorious Bastards, is good as Daniel, a man who’s survived weeks of cruel questioning, but the residual damage, to body and mind, turns out to be a ruse, a plot device. I’ll admit, the leads do have nice chemistry, and the climax — an extended suspense sequence — is exciting in an Argo kind-of-way. Though despite the epilogue condemning the atrocities of Pinochet’s era, I was sure I’d seen a serviceable prison-escape-movie, rather than the intended searing political drama. Someone still needs to make that film, about the Chilean people, who for decades called that prison home and could never just escape.