Toward the end of this metaphor-laced hybrid of documentary, reenactment, and fiction, the offscreen voice of the narrator (the film’s director, Alexander Sokurov), beckons its two protagonists into an empty room in the Louvre, and bids them sit in a couple of straight-backed chairs. The time is the early 1940s, with France in the grip of Nazi occupation. The men are Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), the director of the Louvre, and Count Franz WolffMetternich (Benjamin Utzerath), the German officer in charge of French museums for the Third Reich.
“Would you like to know the future?” Sokurov asks, and proceeds to fill them in on how their days will play out. The bottom line is that, after long and important lives, both will die in relative obscurity, and be largely forgotten. “I couldn’t find anyone who remembers you,” he tells Jaujard. All that survives, Sokurov is reminding us, is art.
This is the man who took us on a breathtaking odyssey through Russian history in his (2002), with a tour of the Hermitage done in one unbroken hour- and- a-half take. The technique is different here, but there’s the same reverence for art and for the great museums that shelter it.
Sokurov uses a mix of vintage newsreel footage and new material shot for this movie, the latter faded, streaked, and squared into an old-fashioned format, with an optical soundtrack visible at the margin. It’s often difficult to tell where the one leaves off and the other begins. From actual newsreel clips of Hitler and his staff arriving in Paris in 1940, admiring new acquisitions like the Eiffel Tower and the ChampsElysées, the film moves on to the Louvre, where Wolff-Metternich strides with an aide through the empty halls of the palace, looking for somebody in charge.
He finds that person in the coolly courteous Jaujard, who receives him in his office, offers coffee, and shows him the books. It becomes clear that the great museum is virtually empty, save for the statues that could not be easily removed. The paintings have been taken from their frames and placed in chateaux in the countryside, where they will be safe from bombardment and more difficult to plunder.
Wolff-Metternich has no trouble understanding the prudence of such a precaution. He had done the same with Germany’s treasures. And he’s a cultured European who has no desire to loot France’s patrimony (Sokurov, musing in voice-over, wonders, “Is it true that this museum is worth more than all of France?”). As the two men come to know each other, a grudging respect develops, a shared passion for art that might be the basis for friendship under other circumstances. As they tour the safe houses, among the masterpieces that come to light is Géricault’s
(1818-1819), hidden in the basement of a provincial manor.
That storm-tossed vessel plays into one of Sokurov’s sideshow metaphors, a container ship carrying the artistic treasures of some country’s museum, and being battered by threatening seas. Sokurov is Skyping with the captain, and it appears the ship will have to jettison its precious cargo to stay afloat. This is a bit of a distraction, but not as serious as the presence of a couple of other characters who seem to be there for playful effect. One is Marianne ( Johanna Korthals Altes), the helmeted symbol of the French republic, who glides through the deserted Louvre murmuring “Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!” (which the subtitles insist on rendering as “Freedom! Equality! Brotherhood!”). The other is Napoléon (Vincent Nemeth), who does make the important point that the spoils of war are, in large part, the victor’s taking possession of the art of the conquered. “I went to war for art,” he declares. “Why else?”
A country’s art is its immortality. We see statuary and friezes that once adorned Assyrian palaces, and are reminded of Shelley: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/ Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing survives of the feared tyrant Ozymandias but a crumbling statue. Sokurov shows us a 9,000-year- old carving of a man, and we know that this miraculously preserved work of art is all that remains from whatever vanished culture produced it.
The art of portraiture and representative scenes is a Western cultural trait, Sokurov observes. Islam forbids or discourages the rendering of humans in art (aniconism) — and the wanton destruction of antiquities by ISIS underlines the fragility of these cultural treasures.
The quiet heroism of men like Jaujard, who protected the Louvre’s irreplaceable treasures, and of Wolff- Metternich, who resisted Hitler’s mandate to loot them, i s quickly forgotten. But the art remains. — Jonathan Richards