In his new essay, director Alexander Sokurov (Russian Ark) ruminates on the Louvre Museum, its long-standing relationship to France’s cultural identity and, more specifically, the fate of the museum and its contents during the Nazi occupation. Sokurov uses archival material (there are a fascinating number of paintings of the Louvre) and some dramatic recreations. One establishes the Western proclivity for building such critical cultural temples as a “happy” outcome of war (or colonialism). To the victors, go the sarcophagi!
And then there is the fascinating tale of Jacques Jaujard and Count Franziskus Wolff-Metternich, the French bureaucrat and the Nazi officer, respectively, who were unlikely collaborators in saving the Louvre’s treasures from both physical destruction and theft. They shared a keen understanding of the vulnerability of art, especially as a stand-in for culture, during times of conflict. (Today, we see the same impulses playing out in the Middle East, as ancient cultural sites are intentionally destroyed.)
Some of the film’s material is less interesting, and a contemporary thread about the shipping of art across oceans left me puzzled. (It’s too risky? Art should stay home?) But mostly, Sokurov does a fine job weaving together art and history, and what both reveal about ourselves, individually and as a culture.