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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Rape of Europa

posted by on January 30 at 13:05 PM

Yesterday I saw a screening of the new documentary film The Rape of Europa, opening in Seattle next week. I can’t believe this movie hasn’t been made before. It tells the comprehensive story of the Nazi march on Europeónot through field battles, but battles for art.


That picture is of a guard at the Louvre in 1939, standing in front of an empty frame that held a Veronese painting before the museum was evacuated on the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Paris.

There is plenty of eye-popping footage like this from the period: more than 6,000 paintings found hostage in a deep, dark mine; the Victory of Samothrace rolling treacherously down a flight of stairs. The interviews are also incredible. One is with the daughter of the family charged with watching over the Mona Lisa while it was in hiding.

No question: the film is a towering achievement, based on the book by Lynn H. Nicholas, narrated by Joan Allen, and written, produced, and directed by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, and Nicole Newnham.

In one scene, a current docent at the Warsaw Royal Castle says people ask why the castle was rebuilt after being demolished by the Nazis. “The answer is the same as the reason it was destroyed. The Poles could not live without the castle.”

Obviously, the systematic crushing of souls is nothing compared to mass murder. But unlike murder, some crimes can be reversed. This film is the Nuremberg trials for what might be considered the misdemeanors of the Nazi regime: the theft and destruction of art and monuments across Europe. These may only be objects, but for many people, there is life in these objects, too.

There’s Maria Altmann, the old woman whose (successful) quest to see her family’s Klimt paintings returned is also her battle to expose Austria’s historic complicity with Hitler. There’s the middle-aged Christian German man dedicated to reuniting confiscated Torah ornaments with the families of their rightful owners. There’s the Utah curator who hopes that the return of his museum’s prized Boucher to the daughter of a looted Jewish dealer “will confer a little humanity back on all of us.”

Like the saga of the Holocaust, the plunder of Europeónot modern, Jewish, or Slavic art, of course, but Italian, French, and old artóis made that much more chilling by the organization with which it was carried out. Before invading countries, Hitler would compile lists of the artworks he wanted, from Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine in Warsaw (see it recovered after the war, below) to Rembrandts, Raphaels, and Vermeers in France, Russia, and Italy. At the end of the war, 49 train car loads of stolen art and artifacts were carried away from Hitler’s hiding place at the Neuschwanstein Castle.


On the other side of the equation was an equally determined army, made up of people who wanted to keep art out of criminal hands. This included museum staffers (some died in the freezing cellar of the Hermitage); the little-known American “Monuments Men,” who worked for the military but were often at odds with its attack plans; and mousy little Rose Valland, the French spy.

In many ways, The Rape of Europa is timely. New claims to recover art stolen by the Nazis are constantly coming to light, and museums are cooperating. (Seattle Art Museum returned a Matisse in 1999.) But in other ways, it represents a distant, unrecognizable time. Tragically, a time when art mattered to invaders of all kinds now seems quaint.

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I loved this film. My boyfriend didn't quite understand when I told him I was close to tears several times through it.

Posted by Gloria | January 30, 2008 1:22 PM

Quaint indeed. Precious little press went to the sacking of the National Museum of Iraw in Baghdad just after our invasion. Many many priceless artifacts were stolen, or destroyed to be sold as scrap.

Posted by Alphonse | January 30, 2008 1:35 PM

Hitler was an artist, not a good one, but it's an additional explanation for why he was so concerned with seizing important works.

I also like the story of Chiang Kai Shek fleeing mainland China with huge quantities of Chinese art in tow -- just barely managing to keep it out of Maoist hands.

Posted by keshmeshi | January 30, 2008 1:49 PM

John Frankenheimer's 'The Train' with Burt Lancaster is a more action-packed version of this story, which you may also dig

Posted by Brakhage | January 30, 2008 2:00 PM

Saw this film sometime last year at Northwest film forum when the directors brought it for a screening. Pretty damned good film.

Posted by apttitle | January 30, 2008 2:42 PM

Art still matters to invaders-- apparently now, as something to destroy.

Posted by Jessica | January 30, 2008 2:47 PM

I don't know if this is in the film or not, but it's also worth noting that at the end of the war the U.S. military trained & sent several people into former Nazi territory for the express purpose of recovering art. Hard to imagine them doing that now when they won't even provide soldiers with sufficient armor.

Posted by korper | January 30, 2008 3:30 PM

Jen, I love you. Your posts are always, always interesting and wonderful.

Posted by Boomer in NYC | January 30, 2008 4:49 PM

Here is an article about it in Smithsonian Magazine.

Posted by Timothy Wind | January 30, 2008 6:44 PM

I read Nicholas's book years ago when it came out -- wonderful to know about the film! Thanks for the heads up.

Posted by Jubilation T. Cornball | January 30, 2008 9:44 PM

@8 - Yikes!

Posted by what's boomer smokin' - and is he sharin'? | January 30, 2008 9:45 PM

A few years ago I was in Weimar, which was listed as a European Cultural Capital for that particular year. There was an exhibit of Third Reich art and Communist art that was very interesting to say the least. The Third Reich artwork was art that Hitler and other top-ranking Nazis had either commissioned or had given to them as gifts. They were prosaic, at best because Hitler had only certain themes that pleased him; primarily Germanic legends and art that portrayed him as a knight, shepherd, or contemplating nature. The only piece I found myself attracted to was a painting of a woman asleep on a beach with her sleeping cat curled up next to her. Now, the Communist art was interesting, too, but I won't go into that.

Posted by Johnny | January 31, 2008 7:11 AM

I'm half way through the book that this is based on, didn't know a documentary had been created, looking forward to seeing it as well!

Posted by harold hollingsworth | January 31, 2008 5:05 PM

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