Written and directed by Aleksandr Sokurov

85 minutes, rated M

4 stars

After the grand spectacle that was Russian Ark (2003) – that heady waltz through the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg – the Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov turns his attention to the Louvre. Do we expect another high-wire act, a one-take pony, as the camera swirls from room to room with more ladies in 19th century finery?

Better not. Francofonia is as far from that as Moscow from Paris.  Where Russian Ark was sumptuous, Francofonia is intimate. Most of it is in the form of a meditation, as a man shuffles around his Moscow apartment, the rough cut of this film playing on his computer, the shutters drawn. The narration draws us into his thoughts about what the Louvre really is – and at that level, the film is every bit as engaging as Russian Ark.

And there’s a story, which is rare in a Sokurov film. There’s no-one quite like him in contemporary cinema, except perhaps Terrence Malick. Both are poets, working internally, heavily dependent on music to make films that are dream-like, essayistic, unapologetically slow. Malick is capable of narrative film-making, but Sokurov’s idea of story is more febrile, more… Russian. He has been branching out lately with narrative features – one set in Chechnya, the other a German-language adaptation of Faust.

Francofonia is more accessible. It’s as wry as it is stimulating – and humour is unexpected. Very little looks to have been shot in the Louvre. Much is recreation, or historical record, as Sokurov tells the story of the two men who helped to save the museum during World War Two. When the Nazis invaded in June 1940, Hitler came to view his ‘new acquisition’. He planned, among other things, to take back what Napoleon stole from Prussia in the previous century – much of it housed in the Louvre.

A German officer, Count Franz von Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath), comes to find the director of French museums, Jacques Jaujard (Louis-do de Lencquesaing). Wolff-Metternich is an art historian, who explains that he is charged with preserving the cultural heritage of occupied France. Jaujard says calmly that all of the art, save a few statues, has been moved for safekeeping to various chateaux around the country.  So begins a complex and unlikely friendship, only a little of which we see here.

We know from The Monuments Men that the Nazis took what they wanted from private collections, many of them owned by Jews, but they had less success with the French national collections, overseen by Jaujard. Wolff-Metternich helped him protect those, against the rapacious demands of Goebbels and Goring. The count was recalled in 1942 for getting in the way of the plundering. After the war, Jaujard went to his aid when Wolff-Metternich’s role with the Nazis was under scrutiny. He was also instrumental in Wolff-Metternich being awarded a Legion d’honneur by Charles de Gaulle in 1952.

Sokurov dramatises some of this in playful ways. There’s a shot of a German plane – clearly a large model – flying past a window in the Louvre, close enough to touch. His narration takes us not just through this history, but the nature and purpose of art, sometimes provocatively. ‘What would I be if I had never seen the eyes of those who went before me?’ he wonders, looking at 17th and 18th century portraits. An actor playing Napoleon (Vincent Nemeth) offers a bombastic tour of the highlights. ‘Of course it was I who brought all this back. Why else would I have gone to war?’

And a Russian cannot forget the comparison with the history of St Petersburg. ‘The whole world defines a work of art and war alone decides where it will end up.’

It’s a thoughtful film, intellectually engaged but far from dry. Sokurov has an uncanny ability to open his mind to visitors, and it’s an original place. Art for him is a matter of life and death, as it was for the Nazis and for men like Jaujard and Wolff-Metternich, who risked all to protect it.