The Case of the Stolen Paintings

03/12/2015 09:11 am ET | Updated May 12, 2015

François Margolin's new film, L'Antiquaire (which might be called 'The Art Dealer' if and when it is released in the English-speaking world), is fiction.

But it is also a meditation on one of the great French scandals of the last 65 years: the dispossession of Jewish art collectors during the Second World War and the failure, after the war, to make more than token restitution for the stolen art works.

Margolin, like George Clooney in last year's Monuments Men, bases his tale on a true story--in this case the story of one of the film's screenwriters, Sophie Seligmann.

The main character, played by the luminous and always pitch perfect Anna Sigalevitch, comes across a canvas from a poorly identified collection.

On the basis of vague, murky clues, she guesses that the collection may not be unrelated to the one that had belonged to her grandfather and that had vanished without a trace after he was shot at Mont-Valérien in December 1941.

She investigates.

Sheisits archives, which are either inaccessible or lead to dead ends.

She locates witnesses who seem to have forgotten everything.

She encounters resistance from her own family, which, in principle, should be interested in discovering the truth but instead appears taken with the same odd passion for ignorance.

Enthralled, overcome by her quest as a mystic is by his faith, she finds a few reels of Super 8 film shot during the happy days before the war. One reel shows her young grandfather asking Klaus, a German friend, to hide his art works from the encroaching Nazi mob.

Before you know it, like Ariadne without Theseus, struggling not to lose herself in a labyrinth full of white-collar criminals (oh, the skeletons in the closets of the sacrosanct lower depths of museums!) or disturbing living oxymorons (the familiar character of the Vichyite-resistance fighter of which recent history has given us so many specimens, right up to François Mitterrand, but rarely so well defined as here!), the trail leads her to her great-uncle Raoul, a modest hero, inundated with honors and medals, above suspicion, unsuspected.

She finally discovers that it is Raoul who, with the double complicity, before the war, of the family's German friend and, after the war, of museums all too glad to enich themselves with masterpieces whose owners had just disappeared into ash and smoke, had robbed his dead brother before setting himself up in one of Rimbaud's "immense and unquestionable opulences" that, as the poet was the first to point out, are nearly always the "balance" of the "sale" of "voices and bodies."

The act is never fully elucidated.

As in any good detective story, Margolin tries to lead us astray and, at critical points in the investigation, to dangle the possibility that his heroine may be paranoid, half-crazy, a victim of the delirium that can be induced by wanting to know too much and over-interpreting matters. And then comes the final scene in which two pirates of the Nazi night (Raoul, of course, played by Michel Bouquet, and Robert Hirsch's Jewish gallery owner, who managed to emerge rich from the Occupation, though no one knew how) confront one another in a furious and pitiable joust of old men.

But the facts are what they are.

Films, books, and works of scholarship have proliferated.

Thirty-odd years have passed since I tried, with L'Ideologie française (1981) to penetrate the thick fog that shrouds the secrets of fascism under French colors.

The French government belatedly formed commissions of truth and compensation to make reparations where they could still be made, while stories like that of Cornelius Gurlitt (a German who, after his death last year, was found to have hoarded some 1,500 stolen paintings in the basements of his houses) have given us the feeling of purging, a little more with each discovery, the abcess of the crime and of the attendant amnesia.

Alas, the phantoms remain.

The thieves are vanishing, but their ghosts are still here. We can not see them; we can barely sense them. But they are walking beside us. Brushing past, they continue to haunt us.

And they seem not to age--yes, that is their strength! They have been miraculously saved from time: Time passes, but they remain in that state of cruel youth (captured by a zooming camera) implied in the final appearance, in the scene in the cemetery, of the German friend (Niels Schneider) looking as if three generations have not been able to alter him. And just as Yiddish language and musicality are much less moribund, the film tells us, than is commonly thought, so those who sought to obliterate that language and that musicality have not aged or changed: They abide, as on the first day, with a fury that neither time nor regret have tempered, keen to pursue the skin and the voice of the Jew.

That, at bottom, is the message of this solemn and beautiful film.

That is the lesson of shadows and light that the film offers to an era, our era, that seems never to tire of recycling frozen phrases.

Do you, too, believe that your country may crash into the wall of its nationalistic fascism?

Have you had enough of the strain of free speech that seems most delightedly free when it is helping the speaker either to strip Jews of their rediscovered pride or to restart the crass yet perennially fresh minuet of hate?

If so, go see L'Antiquaire.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy