Fran­co­fo­nia

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Rus­sian Ark The Raft of the Me­dusa

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

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