The Rape of Europa
, ,
117 min.
Release Date
The Rape of Europa

Based on the 1995 book by Lynn Nicholas, The Rape of Europa explores fanatical art plundering in Nazi-occupied countries, and opens up new and shocking doors into the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. Not only were millions killed in concentration camps, but cultures were nearly wiped away by Adolf Hitler’s theft and destruction of their high art. This affecting documentary probes into how the loss of art represents a loss of cultural identity arguably equivalent to the loss of life and reveals an entirely new view on Hitler’s sadistic regime.

Historian Jonathan Petropoulos calls the Third Reich a “plundering bureaucracy” bent on a systematic looting of Europe’s greatest art treasures; long before invading his target cities, an ostensible “want list” of artworks was compiled by Hitler. The dictator’s fascination grew from his early years as a second-rate watercolor painter in Vienna, where his application to art school was rejected. While one could spend a lifetime wondering What if Hitler had been accepted?, the reality is that he went on and rose to power, eventually using profits from his book Mein Kampf to purchase a constantly growing art collection. Soon Hitler’s Nazi elite sought their own art collections as a signifier of class, most notably Hermann Göring whose personal collection out-numbered most museums.

More than simply pilfering and stockpiling history’s paintings, drawings, and sculptures in stashes like the Kaiseroda salt mine in Merkers, Germany, Hitler aimed to purify the ideologies such works depicted. Hitler’s tastes were largely classical and undemanding; any artist of Germanic origins was lauded, even if the art had been commissioned by “inferior” races. Modern or expressive works were deemed “degenerate” largely because they did not speak to Hitler’s desired absolutism. Nazis even circulated an art show of “degenerate” works, including pieces by Picasso, Matisse, and Van Gogh, where masterpieces were sold for bargain prices given their unfortunate label.

Among this documentary’s several stories, the most harrowing involve those individuals passionate to preserve art. Unassuming Frenchwoman Rose Valland was kept at the Jeu de Paume gallery by the Nazi’s for general preservation; unbeknownst to them, she understood their German tongue and secretly cataloged thousands of paintings Nazis brought in or removed from the museum, along with the names of their original owners. The international group of “Monument Men”, a military outfit designed to safeguard items of artistic significance, was led by Captain Deane Keller and saved a myriad of works from destruction. Resistance art lovers hid priceless paintings, such as the Mona Lisa, in their private homes far away from occupied cities. Florence safeguarded their city’s icons, such as Michelangelo’s David, by surrounding them in protective brick capsules.

In spite of these efforts, a number of works remain misplaced by history. Collections were transferred from Austria to Germany, from Germany to Russia, and so forth, with individual pieces “lost”, damaged, or altogether destroyed during the move. While some collectors have come forth and returned once stolen works to their intended owners, others pieces remain locked in legal debates. Museums seem to jealously cling to their collections, despite legal documents (or simple morality) suggesting their pieces belong to another party. After the war, the aforementioned heroes labored to return stolen works to their rightful owners, healing a small piece of the emotional scarring perpetuated by Hitler. But still, Hitler’s removal and relocation of art, whether for his own collection or those of his top staff, has left thousands of pieces in the wrong hands, destroyed, or simply missing.

In cinematic terms, co-directors Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, and Nicole Newnham rely on a massive selection of archival footage from newsreels, personal recorders, and some rare color footage. The interviews are conducted plainly, the topics discussed seriously. They avoid reducing their subject by incorporating flashy editing or gimmicky devices to make their film more “entertaining”. This is a documentary film in the scholarly sense, conveying a great deal on the implication of art or lack thereof to European culture. Despite the film’s straightforwardness, you’d have to be soulless not to feel something for Europe’s loss and theft of human identity by the hands of Nazis.

Footage shows Capt. Keller returning to Florence with truckloads of paintings after Hitler’s fall. People gather in the streets and cheer with tears streaming down their faces, many of them unsure exactly which artworks are being returned and which were lost forever. They’re simply overjoyed that, at least in part, Florence is whole again. In the age of new media where paintings and sculptures can be reduced to a jpeg file, there’s no need for art aficionados to travel great distances to share that indescribable bond between a live painting and its viewer. Furthermore, for Americans, cultural identity is less grounded in classical art, at least in comparison to the venerable traditions of central Europe. And so, perhaps, American viewers can only guess at the significant healing this returned art represents.

It is doubtful that Hitler bothered asking why his so-called “inferior races” had incredibly refined tastes in art. One interviewee poses the question: How could Hitler and his Nazi goons have such an appreciation for fine art but such a lack of compassion for human existence? Since one seems to infer the other, the paradox of Nazi madness is further outlined. The Rape of Europa doesn’t offer any answers to the questions it raises, which in another documentary might be a mistake. No answers can appease or explain the fanaticism, hatred, and greedy hording in the period. It’s enough that we’re continuing the inner debate about the value of human life versus the value of art.

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