“Illustrious Yet Unknown” is a new French documentary that tells the story of how the Louvre museum staff saved priceless works of art from the invading Nazi army.
The Venus de Milo, the Mona Lisa and the Winged Victory of Samothrace were among the artworks that were in danger of falling in the hands of Hitler’s forces. The documentary’s unsung hero is Jacques Jaujard, deputy director of the Louvre when the German forces invaded France.
Mixing archive footage with animation, and narrated by French actor Mathieu Amalric, creators Jean-Pierre Devillers and Pierre Pochart tell the story of a top-secret operation that started ten days before World War II: Jaujard, with the help of hundreds of loyal employees from across France, on his own initiative, hid all the museum’s artistic treasures without receiving orders from the French government. His impressive act was based on intuition.
Jaujard’s team managed to hide the artworks in castles and abbeys in central and southern France. They were catalogued according to their importance, then put in crates to ship away. According to the documentary, the artworks were put in 1,862 wooden crates and a total of 203 vehicles such as cars, taxis, trucks and ambulances were used to carry the priceless cargo to their hiding places. The Winged Victory of Samothrace was the last masterpiece to be taken away. The operation was completed the day the Nazis invaded Poland, starting World War II.
During the Nazi occupation, Jaujard was highly active moving the artworks around so they don’t fall in German hands. In his brave mission to keep the treasures hidden, he had an unlikely ally: The man Hitler had trusted to collect all important French artworks, Count Franz Wolff-Metternich, did not seem eager to complete his mission and, according to Jaujard’s diary, he looked relieved when he found the Louvre empty upon his arrival.