Rape of Europa, The

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 05/05/07 04:02:08

"A fascinating, illuminating documentary about WWII and stolen art."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2007 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Written, produced, and directed by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, and Nicole Newnham and based on Lynn H. Nicholas' award-winning book of the same name, "The Rape of Europa" exhaustively documents Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime’s theft of classical art before and during World War II, Allied policies toward the preservation of cultural treasures, the so-called “Monuments Men,” members of the armed forces assigned to catalogue recovered art, restore damaged art, and return stolen art to rightful owners or their heirs. "The Rape of Europa" also explores, albeit tangentially, the complex legal and ethical issues surrounding the ownership of stolen art that now sits in state or national museums. Even for a two-hour documentary, covering that much history in any detail is a daunting task, one that "The Rape of Europa" mostly achieves at the cost of focusing insufficiently on some aspects or issues connected to stolen and recovered art.

Not surprisingly, The Rape of Europa begins by discussing Adolf Hitler, a failed artist rejected by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts in 1907, who eventually developed a deep-seated hatred of modern art. When Hitler and the Nazis obtained political power in the early 1930s in Germany, they embarked on a campaign to purge and purify German art and culture from what Hitler called “degenerate art,” modern, non-representational art. German museums were forced of divest themselves of more than 16,000 pieces of fine art, including paintings and sculptures. Private collectors were also forced to remove modern art from their collections. Jewish families fared worse, especially after the war began and the concentration camps opened. Once deported to concentration camps, Jewish families lost title to their art collections (under the odious legal theory that they had “abandoned” their collections).

Not content to censor modern art, Hitler applied his usual megalomania to collecting classical art from Germany, Austria, and as Nazi Germany rolled through Eastern Europe in the early days of World War II, appropriating art for his collection he deemed worthy (Western European artists). Hitler chose Linz, Austria, his adopted city, as the site for a new imperial city. Under the direction of Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, the “new” Linz would include the world’s largest museum. Not surprisingly, Poland, the first country invaded and occupied by Hitler, lost centuries-old art treasures to Hitler’s mania for collecting. Art deemed purely “Slavic” (Poles, as Slavs, were considered an inferior race by Hitler and the Nazis) was destroyed, including architectural landmarks such as the Royal Castle, the home of the Polish Parliament, in Warsaw. Art in Krakow faired better, if only because Hitler saw Krakow as a “Western,” Germanic, city and not an Eastern, Slav one. The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg fared better, with more than half of its collection safely transported 1,000 miles away to Siberia before the German Army began its 900-day siege.

In France, curators and art historians planned for the inevitable evacuation of the major art pieces from the Louvre Museum in Paris. Spanning eight miles and containing more than 400,000 pieces of art, the Louvre was (and is) the premier museum in Europe. Moving so many pieces of art, including fragile paintings, involved a concentrated effort that became a citywide effort to save France’s cultural heritage from the Nazis. The art was shipped to various locations, mostly chateaus in Southern France, often with art historians or curators in tow to help maintain each work of art in as undamaged as possible. Luckily, the Nazis decided not to pursue the missing art, under the expectation that doing so would cause a costly rebellion by the French. That and the German Army wanted to maintain Paris as a favorite vacation spot for its senior officers.

The Rape of Europa then looks at the other side of the war from the Allied Perspective. Members of the newly created National Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., petitioned President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) to institute policies to preserve Europe’s cultural and artistic heritage. For example, after the Allies invaded Italy and began moving north, the decision not to bomb Monte Cassino, a centuries-old monastery turned into a German fortress, resulted in a costly battle. After a prolonged stalemate, the Allies were forced to bomb the monastery, at great loss. The Allies did decide, however, not to bomb Florence, a city known for its Renaissance-era buildings, sculptures, and other works of art. Instead, the Allies focused on the railway lines, specifically a train yard. Unfortunately, the Germans destroyed several Renaissance-era bridges when they retreated north.

Pressed by the National Art Gallery, FDR agreed to add the so-called “Monuments Men” to army units. These Monuments Men usually had backgrounds in art or cultural restoration. The Monuments Men focused primarily on preserving whatever they could find in he newly freed cities of Western Europe. They worked through 1951 to collect, catalogue, restore, and return works of art to their rightful owners or their heirs. From Herman Goering’s mountain lodge, the Monuments Men retrieved more than 2,000 works of art that Goering had stolen as Hitler’s second in command and commander of the Luftwaffe, the German air force. The Soviet Union was less forgiving, however, sending out Soviet Trophy Brigades into the newly conquered territories and sending works of art back to the Soviet Union. Ownership of at least some pieces is still in dispute.

"The Rape of Europa" briefly returns to a story introduced early on, the lengthy legal battle over title of four paintings by Gustav Klimt, including “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” by her niece. Held by an Austrian museum for more than sixty years, an Austrian panel ultimately decided to return the paintings to Adele’s niece. As "The Rape of Europa" makes clear, however, the legal battle over the Klimt paintings was only one of many that are still unresolved and likely to remain unresolved for the near future. All told, "The Rape of Europa" offers an illuminating, if compressed, tour through a little known aspect of the Second World War. For that alone, it’s worth seeing, especially as a companion piece to author Lynn H, Nicholas’ book of the same name.

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