The Rape of Europa
January 11, 2008 | While vividly illuminating a little-known chapter of World War II history — and revealing that, alas, the book has not yet closed on the subject — The Rape of Europa compels attention and sustains interest as an examination of Adolf Hitler's obsession with claiming Europe's art masterworks for the "master race."
Written, produced and directed by Richard Berge, Nicole Newnham and Bonni Cohen, and drawn from an authoritative book of the same title by Lynn H. Nicholas, this well-crafted documentary is propelled by its frightful portrait of Hitler — a second-rate painter who was twice denied entry to Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts — as a voracious collector and unforgiving critic.
Hitler ordered his minions to steal hundreds of thousands of artworks in each country that fell to the Nazi war machine. Indeed, as narrator Joan Allen notes, invading German armies were armed with wish-lists of paintings and statues coveted by Der Führer (and intended for display at a massive museum in Linz, his Austrian hometown).
More than 60 years after the war's end, many of those plundered masterworks continue to be subjects of legal disputes over ownership — the filmmakers pay close attention to the long battle over Gustav Klimt's Gold Portrait of Frau Bloch-Bauer — while thousands more remain unaccounted for. Worse, countless others were destroyed as part of Hitler's program to rid the fatherland of "degenerate art," and to obliterate all trace of distinctive non-Aryan cultures.
The Rape of Europa is not without precedent. In his 1989 documentary, The Architecture of Doom, filmmaker Peter Cohen provocatively argued that the Third Reich must be understood in aesthetic as well as political terms, and that Hitler's campaign to "purify the race" was a natural extension of his desire for "purity" of art.
And in Max, an underrated 2002 dramatic feature, writer-director Menno Meyjes audaciously imagined a young Hitler in post-World War I Munich as a frustrated art-school reject who rails against the "decadence" of modern art while becoming, in effect, history's most horribly potent performance artist.
But The Rape of Europa renders history on a far larger canvas, in much greater detail, noting incidents of ingenious heroism — most notably, the bold removal and concealment of Louvre treasures in France just before the German Occupation — and recounting the remarkable efforts of the "Monuments Men," a special unit of U.S. Army specialists charged with locating and recovering art seized by the Nazis.
Here and elsewhere, the documentary suggests that, sometimes, truth may be stranger than fiction because no screenwriter would dare invent it.