Keeping art safe from Nazi pillagers
Film explores the history of Louvre during Second World War occupation
Ben Stiller and director Shawn Levy have delivered three Nights at the Museum over the past decade. Not to be outdone, Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov presents an arthouse followup to 2002’s Russian Ark, which imagined 200 years of history at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, crammed into a bravura, single-take 100 minutes.
Francofonia doesn’t duplicate the technical feat of that film, but it’s still a worthwhile expedition. The subject is the Louvre, second in size only to the Hermitage, with triple the number of visitors annually.
The story skips back and forth through time. Various Napoleons keep invading the movie, which seems typical. But the focus is on the period from June 1940 through August 1944, when Nazi forces occupied the city and, by default, the museum. (Given the Louvre’s long history, the Reich’s forces were practically day trippers.)
The invading army kept Jacques Jaujard as the titular head of the museum — he had already overseen the dispersal of much of its works to country estates and chateaux for safety — but paired him with Count Franz Wolff-Metternich, appointed by Hitler to oversee the collection.
Sokurov imagines meetings be- tween the two men, who collaborated to keep artistic treasures away from Nazi collectors. (He notes, somewhat bitterly, that Russia and its museums were treated far less kindly by the Nazi foe.)
Francofonia is part history lesson, part philosophical ramble, as the filmmaker, acting as narrator, ponders the meaning of collected artworks, going so far as to suggest they are the ultimate spoils of war.
“Who needs France without the Louvre?” he asks. “Or Russia without the Hermitage? Who would we be without museums?”
The film includes an odd framing device, in which the director tries to talk to a container-ship commander transporting unspecified artistic treasures across rough seas. It’s an unnecessary distraction to the central story, which proves all on its own that if you have the Louvre, you have everything you need.