Francofonia: A Panegyric to the Louvre

Louvre - Hubert Robert_Projet_daménagement_de_la_Grande_Galerie_du_LouvreThe Grand Gallery

On the Ordeal of Art Museums in Times of War

Of the myriad films that will be released this year Francofonia will stand out as unique.  This is because it addresses a topic that is seldom discussed among most people and few rarely give it a thought.   What dose great museums do to protect its priceless art treasures, the cultural heritage of mankind, in times of war?  Although this film references other great museums, mainly the Hermitage in Russia, its focal point is the Louvre in Paris, which in the view of many art historians and critics houses the greatest collection of paintings in the world.  Although many New Yorkers would make that claim for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  And upon one of my visits to the Louvre I encountered an Italian woman who said “What do the French know of art…or wine?  You must come to Rome!”

Needless to say, I am not the one to settle this argument, for I have neither the expertise nor desire to do so.  However the claims of cultural nationalist aside, the Louvre is a marvelous place; a grand temple dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of the world’s greatest works of art, the best that the human imagination could conjure in painting and sculpture.  This wonderful creative film provides a penetrating look into the workings of the Louvre and the heroic effort its Director undertook to save their great works of Art.

Written and directed by the Russian master Alexander Sukorov, the film employs a unique narrative method.  Mixing film from newsreels of the period and footage they shot, much of the story is told with a voice over by an omniscient narrator who reads a script that often sounds like an epic poem.  The monologue meditates on the meaning of art to civilization and the importance of museums in establishing the cultural identity of a people.  The combination of the spoken words and images –and in this case the written word since this is a foreign language film with subtitles – provides a powerful experience.

Much of this power derives from the fact that images of great art are juxtaposed with images of real Nazi forces occupying Paris.  The film opens with an aerial view of Paris as we listen to the voice of a person anxiously trying to find their way to the Louvre.  The drama is heightened when we see that it is the voice of Adolph Hitler, riding down a Parisian boulevard in an open car like a conqueror leading his victorious troops while commenting on the design of the city as he makes his way to visit the Louvre.

Here we are reminded that Hitler was a failed artist who once harbored ambitions to become a great architect.  In fact these failed ambitions played a key role in the monster he became.  His failure to gain admission into a prestigious art school in Vienna was blamed on Jews, and his close relationship with architect Albert Speer reflects his desire to realize his architectural ambitions through the talents of this young architect who became the vehicle for the Nazi dictator’s ideas.  In fact, at the Nurnberg trials Speer denies that he ever shared Hitler’s Nazi beliefs but was simply an ambitious architect who graduated from school during a period of profound economic crisis in post-World War I Germany.

Hitler Entering Paris
Hitler Entering Paris
Following his victorious Legions
Hitler’s Painting of a German Castle

Hitler's painting of German castle

A Photograph and Hitler’s Painting of the Castle

Suffering from the financial burden imposed by the Versailles Treaty, the German economy was in chaos, which was reflected in the disastrous decline in the value of German currency and mass unemployment, which was exacerbated by a world-wide depression induced by the collapse of the stock market in America. Hence Speer argued that, like most Germans, he was looking for work wherever he could find it and Hitler offered him the opportunity to realize his grandest dreams.  After all Hitler promised a Thousand Year Reich when Germany would rule the world and Berlin would be its center, just as Rome had been in the ancient world.  And as Hitler’s personal architect he would get to design the grand edifices in the capitol city of the new German empire.

Ironically, it was this ambition of Hitler’s and the claim that the Nazi’s were the protectors and purveyors of civilization that would work to save the great landmarks of Paris such as the Opera House and especially the Louvre.  This is reflected in the fact that no bombs were dropped on Paris, and the orders given to German soldiers instructing them how to handle these cultural treasures with care.  However Hitler showed no such restraint regarding the Hermitage in Russia, which in his view housed the flawed artifacts of the inferior Slavs.

Furthermore most of the German officer corps, unlike many of the Nazis, came from the upper classes and in the early 20th century it was a mark of the well-educated man to have knowledge of French Culture.  Many of the Germans spoke fluent French – plus not that long ago the Russian intelligentsia wrote in French – and all of them professed an interest in and knowledge of great art.

However all of the top Nazi officials also feigned an interest in fine art, but one suspects that this is because they were all yes men to a murderous, temperamental, megalomaniac who was an avid art lover.  In any case, Sukorov made the most of German admiration of French culture and affection for great art by building the plot around two men, one French and one German: Jacques Jaujard and Count Franz Wolff Metternich, played by the French actor Louis-Do de Lencquesaing and Benjamin Utzerath, who is German.

Louis -Do de Lencquesaing and Benjamin Utzerath

Louvre - Francofonia_5_-_Louis_Do_De_Lencquesaing__Benjamin_Utzerath

As Jacques Jaujard and Count Metternich

The actors gave outstanding performances as former combatants in World War I – which had formally ended a mere 21 years ago – who first met in 1940 after the German invasion of Paris.  The dramatic tension in this film lies in the fact that Jaujard was Director of the Louvre and Count Metternich – an art historian in civilian life – was the German officer assigned to take over as the custodian of art  Museums in Paris.  Ironically, despite the fact that they represented different sides in the war, they were united in their desire to preserve the great art in the louvre.

Motivated by a deep seated distrust of German intentions, Jujard did not believe that attempts to appease Hitler by the French and British would restrain his aggresion in Europe.  Hence as early as 1938, as he witnessed the German occupation of Poland, Jujard began to secretly remove the art works from the Louvre in a stealth operation that employed art students, workmen, teachers, artists, et al.

Jujard wrapped and crated these treasures into 1,862 wooden cases, assembled a convoy of 203 vehicles, then shipped them off to safe havens in castles and chateaus throughout France.  Hence when Count Metternich arrived at the Louvre on August 16th 1940, and found the Louvre empty, instead of going into a state of rage Jujard wrote in his diary that Metternich almost seemed relieved.

This reflects the fact that Count Metternich, like most German aristocrats, was not a member of the Nazi Party and proved to be as determined as Jujard to keep these great art works out of the hands of Nazi leaders like Hitler, Goring, Goebbels, et al.   Thus each man was in a conflicting position regarding loyalty to their government versus their love of art and commitment to preserving it.

It was especially trying for Jaujard because the French government had capitulated to the Nazi’s and he felt no loyalty to them but continued to serve in his government position rather than run off and join  the “Free French” resistance because of his dedication to preserving the artistic heritage of the Louvre. And he found such a kindred spirit in Metternich that when the war was over and all the art treasures were retrived undamaged,  The cooperation he recieved from Metternich was of such a scale that Jujard requested that De Gaulle award the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest tribute.

There are many revelations in this film, the most disturbing of which is that Hitler’s attitude toward preserving the art works in the Louvre was far more enlightend that George Bush’s attitude regarding the preservation of the even more priceless antiquities in the Museum at Bagdhad.  A sad commentary indeed.  Sukorov employs some novel cinematic techniques in the telling of this tale, but it is a tale well told.  This is an important and thoughtful film that is well worth the price of the ticket.

Fantasy and Reality as conceived in the European Mind

Louvre paintings I

Are visualized in the paintings in the Louvre
 Ancient Greek Godesses such as Nike Goddess of Victory

Louvre - Winged Victory

Has been on display in the Louvre as “The Winged Victory” since 1884

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
May 12, 2016

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