The Rape Of Europa

2007, Movie, NR, 117 mins


Based on art historian Lynn H. Nicholas' densely detailed, award-winning account of the fate of Europe's museums and private collections under Nazi occupation, this gripping documentary sheds light on the frightening totality of Hitler's vision for a Germanic Europe, and the extent to which he and his Nazi thugs were no better than common thieves.

The looting of a conquered nation's cultural and artistic heritage is just one of the unfortunate consequences of warfare — Napoleon was an infamous "collector" — but such plundering had never before reached the institutional and bureaucratic heights achieved during the Third Reich. For Hitler, a failed artist refused admission to the Vienna Academy of Art, art was a lifelong obsession and the theft and destruction of valuable works a means of refashioning German culture and history. As early as 1937, he called for the purging of "degenerate" art from German museums, removing an estimated 16,000 works by such artists as Picasso, Matisse and Van Gogh, works deemed too modern, "Jewish" and non-German. In their place, Hitler, whose personal taste ran toward 19th-century sentimental painting and 20th-century kitsch, planned to reclaim the truly German works of art lost in previous wars — particularly the humiliating First World War — and others he felt belonged to the Reich simply by virtue of being "Germanic." His resolve to restore Germany to its rightful place as the cultural center of Europe was further strengthened during his first trip to Fascist Italy when, in the company of Mussolini, he was awed by the treasures of Rome and realized how much Berlin and Munich paled by comparison. Compiling "hit lists" of most-wanted works from countries scheduled for invasion — Poland, the Netherlands, the Soviet Union and, above all, France — Hitler's deputies set up a complicated, typically Nazi bureaucracy (exactingly methodical even when documenting murder and theft) to facilitate the enrichment of the Reich's museums and Hitler's personal collection (Hermann Goering, another uncultured, uneducated man with something to prove, also amassed a enormous gallery).

This fascinating film, written, directed and produced by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham, chronicles the Nazi advance, the ruthless means used to rob Jewish families of their treasures, and the efforts of museum workers to hide their prized possessions. Though less exhaustive than Nicholas' book, the film is filled with solid history and exciting tales of derring-do, ingenious escapes and unexpectedly moving encounters between ordinary people and some of the greatest art ever created: A French woman whose parents were entrusted with protecting some of the Louvre's most valuable treasures describes peering into a special crate made of precious wood to find Leonardo's Mona Lisa safe and sound and smiling back at her. The legacy of Nazi theft is still felt today. Many masterpieces are still missing — Raphael's Portrait of a Young Man is chief among the 59,000 known Polish-owned works that have yet to resurface (in a tantalizing scenario, one historian thinks the Raphael might have been painted over and is hiding in plain sight). Some works whose whereabouts are known are embroiled in heart-wrenching custody battles that keep the injustices of Hitler's Reich alive for survivors and their descendants. In Austria, ownership of Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer — valued at over $100 million — was debated until just recently: The Austrian government on one side and the niece of the original owner on the other. A confiscated Boucher that somehow wound up the Utah Museum of Fine Arts was recently returned to the daughter of its original owner, a Parisian Jew. Interviewed for the film, museum director David Carroll sees the return as "just one small way to help confer a little humanity back on all of us." leave a comment --Ken Fox

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