Skipping across ages and genres, this cine-essay beguilement from Russian Ark director Alexander Sokurov considers the Louvre -- and the miracle of the transmission of art and culture across the history. Sokurov's musings encompass history, aesthetics, philosophy and extended metaphor; in scrappy and dramatic vignettes, he compares France during the second World War to an overburdened cargo freighter hauling containers filled with the great accomplishments of civilization through storm-tossed seas. Should the captain cut the containers loose and survive, or go down trying to save history itself? That choice echoes in crisp reenactments of the Nazis' arrival at the Louvre during the Occupation. Though the Germans vowed to preserve and protect the culture they had conquered — Sokurov quotes an edict informing occupying soldiers that "bronze chandeliers are not to be used as coat hangers" -- the French squirreled away most of the paintings in a countryside chateau.
After being put in charge of the Louvre, Count Franziskus Wolff-Metternich risked himself rather than the timeless collection: Despite Berlin's demands, he continually found bureaucratic excuses not to track down art he knew was safest undiscovered. Sokurov tells that story between reveries on Assyrian relics, the art of portraiture (he marvels that we can behold the eyes of people who lived centuries before) and the ways that war has both destroyed and safeguarded the art and artifacts that the Louvre houses. He's puckish in teasing out the complexities, juxtaposing footage of Hitler motoring about Paris with rich costume-comedy of Napoleon, today, wandering the galleries in search of his own image -- and bragging about all the war treasures he enshrined there.