Sunday, 20 November 2016


Marianne “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” and Napoleon, “C'est moi!”, responding to the Mona Lisa

Aleksandr Sukov's Franconia provides an absorbing, meandering study of the history of the Louvre from its origins as a chateau up to the addition of François Mitterand's pyramid. At a deeper level the film is an exploration of the relationship between art, museums and power and of war and peace. There are frequent appearances by Marianne, symbol of the French Republic, and of Napoleon, whose wars were instrumental in creating the Louvre's great collections. At one point Napoleon suggests that that was the reason for the wars!

The film is centred on the relationship between the Louvre's war time director, Jacques Jaujard, and his German superior in occupied France, Count Franziskus Wolff-Metternich. An art historian and a great admirer of French culture, Wolff-Metternich was quietly determined to safeguard the Louvre's collections from being plundered by his Nazi superiors.

After the war Jaujard helped Wolff-Metternich clear his name. Thoroughly rehabilitated in the Federal Republic of Germany, he received the Légion d'honneur from General De Gaulle himself in 1952.

German Officers in a Louvre shorn of most of its art

At a time when European civilization is in crisis, and mankind itself seems on the edge of an unknown and rather frightening future, the film's portrayal of the relationship between Jaujard and Wolf-Metternich symbolizes that between France and Germany that grew out of the ruins of 1945 and has been the cornerstone of Western Europe's seventy years of prosperity and peace.

As befits a Russian director, the film contrasts the Nazi determination to preserve French art with the total lack of respect for Slavic cultural artefacts, which were ruthlessly destroyed as the German armies moved east. As well as the clips of Hitler visiting a deserted Paris in 1940, there are numerous references to Sukov's native Russia: clips of Stalin, of Chekov and of Tolstoy, the author of War and Peace, on his death bed.

The ghost of Napoleon looking at the painting of his coronation.

Throughout the film the director is engaged on an internet webcam link with the captain of a container ship carrying works of art. Periodically the link between ship and land is lost, and the ship is clearly in danger of losing its cargo and perhaps sinking. As Sean Nam points out, this is not a difficult metaphor to unpack.

.. the insinuation here is one of grim uncertainty about the prospect of a unified European culture today. Indeed, for all its congratulatory spirit, Francofonia has the persistent feeling of an elegy bidding adieu to a bygone time, when art and civilization were perhaps more closely intertwined and could similarly be thought of on more continuous terms.

In this post-Brexit, Trumpian centred world, it is noticeable that apart from a film clip of De Gaulle with General Eisenhower, there is no reference throughout the film to the Anglo-American world, which has from time to time intervened and then retreated from the European heartland.


Hels said...

I agree that the Nazis showed a total lack of respect for Slavic cultural artefacts, which were ruthlessly destroyed as the German armies moved east. But I wonder if Russian art objects had somehow been rescued and sent to France for safe keeping, would they have been returned to home after the war. At other times (eg post Napoleon), the Louvre did not return all seized works back to their rightful owners.

John Tyrrell said...

I can't figure out why the Germans would have sent Slavic objects to Paris. Had they been sent to Berlin then they would I guess have been returned by the occupying powers.