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'Hermitage Dwellers' is a work of art and heart

The Hermitage's Winter Palace in St. Petersburg was home to Catherine the Great. Since then, it has housed her massive art collection, which include s Russian icons, portraits of Russian nobles, and Western masterpieces such as Rembrandt's ``The Return of the Prodigal Son." The extraordinary Dutch documentary ``The Hermitage Dwellers" profiles four Hermitage employees -- three elderly women and one young man -- who have developed intimate, almost symbiotic relationships to the palace and its art.

The film tells 20th-century Russian history from the perspective of the nation's most famous museum. After the Revolution of 1917 , icon curator Alexandra risked her life protecting religious art from being destroyed by the Soviets. Olga, the head of museum maintenance, kept watch on the Hermitage's roof during the Nazi bombardment of St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad. Valentina, an attendant, lost her father in one of Stalin's purges. Vladimir, one of the beefy workers in charge of moving and hanging paintings, fought in the Soviet Army in Azerbaijan in 1990. When he says working in the Hermitage saved his life, he speaks for the group.

``If we leave the Hermitage, we will die," Olga says, without irony. It's hard to imagine anyone at an American museum being that attached to their workplace.

What makes the Hermitage special? Is it the palace , with its rich history and even richer Baroque architecture? Or is it the marvelous art collection, lovingly photographed by director Aliona van der Horst?

It's both, but it's more. For the Hermitage's 2,000 workers, who call themselves ``Hermitazhniks " -- the film's English title is a translation of this far more evocative word -- the museum provides sanctuary from the vicissitudes of Russian history even while it stirs their national pride. It's a true hermitage, cut off from the violence and vulgarity of secular life, its workers selfless and devoted. Yet outside the palace walls, history continues: During one day of filming, van der Horst captures a communist rally taking place in a nearby plaza.

``The Hermitage Dwellers" is a beautifully crafted glimpse into the relationship between a museum that is more than a museum and a staff that is more than a staff. At a mere 70 minutes, it's a fleeting glimpse, and the viewer leaves wanting more: more history, more context, more interviews with more Hermitazhniks. Short of booking a flight to St. Petersburg, there's only one solution: sequel!

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