The Rape of Europa
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When people think about World War II, wondering what it meant for the fate of museum-quality art is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. Yet as the documentary "The Rape of Europa" demonstrates, this is a surprisingly vast and involving topic. Written, produced and directed by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham and based on the authoritative book of the same name by Lynn H. Nicholas, "Europa" covers a lot of territory and is packed with information. It also tells a series of wonderful stories, many of which are fascinating enough to inspire movies of their own. That art was on the World War II agenda at all is because of the unexpected makeup of German leader Adolf Hitler. As a young man he was eager to be an artist, but being turned down by the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna left him with a fierce hatred of modern art. That led, once he took power, to an "unrelenting war of purification" against what he considered degenerate art, a wholesale removal of 16,000 works from museum walls. But Hitler didn't just purge all he hated, he also stole what he coveted, which was a lot. And his passion for art mandated a parallel passion in his subordinates; Hermann Goering, for instance, had 1,700 paintings, more than most museums, at his country estate. This led to industrial-strength looting of occupied countries, a plundering so systematic that German bureaucrats made up lists of desired artworks as part of their invasion plans. Some of the most interesting stories in "Europa" have to do with how Paris' Louvre reacted to the impending invasion of France. Almost everything that could be moved, including the large and fragile Winged Victory of Samothrace, was carted up and sent out of town in a convoy of some 300 trucks. Specific curators were assigned specific works of art to look after, and the daughter of the couple assigned the Mona Lisa tells of how it was transported in a specially sealed ambulance. Once the Germans occupied Paris, things got more complex. Rather than go after what the French had hid, the Germans looted art from Jewish apartments. Before being shipped back to Germany, the paintings were stored in the Jeu de Paume, where a woman named Rose Valland kept clandestine records of each painting, records that were essential in recovering the art after the war. Aside from art, the Germans also confiscated furniture, and the story is told of a prisoner in Auschwitz, detailed to help ship the furniture to Germany, who was shocked to come across his own family's household goods, including personal photographs, among the prizes of war. For the invading American troops, how to treat historically and artistically significant buildings during attacks became such a major issue that a presidential commission was appointed to look into it and ruled that these structures should be saved whenever possible. A famous test case where this was not done was the 1944 battle around Italy's Monte Cassino monastery, an ancient site destroyed by American bombers because of fears that Germans were dug in inside. After the deed was done, German newsreels showed footage of the damage and accused the Americans of being "desecraters of European culture." "The Rape of Europa" details all these absorbing stories and more, even going into the postwar fights about who owns what painting that culminated in the sale of Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I for a record $135 million. The picture painted by this film is not pretty, but it is a difficult one to turn away from. --Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Austria, the joke goes, convinced the world that Beethoven was Austrian and Hitler German when, in fact, it's the reverse. A quip of similar vintage came from modernist painter Oskar Kokoschka, who was admitted to Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts in 1907, the same year Hitler's application was spurned. "If it had been the other way around, I would have run the world quite differently," Kokoschka cracked. Would that it had been. Did the academy's rejection of the future Führer inspire his plunder of Europe's cultural masterpieces and his wholesale destruction of work he deemed unworthy? The Rape of Europa is equal parts history, thriller and inspirational. It's a provocative account of the theft, recovery and repatriation of these artworks that considers the Hitler question. It's an epic about the battle to define Western culture that was a subtext of World War II. And it's a jaw-dropping suspenser introducing those unsung heroes who, in the words of one Florentine, scored a "victory of beauty over horror." Hitler, whose aesthetic war aligned with his political one, waged a two-front culture war. He greedily annexed the works of those he deemed superior (French, Italian) and systematically destroyed those he considered "degenerate" (i.e., Jewish, Slavic). While he professed that Jews were racially inferior, this didn't stop him from "shopping" in the collections of Jews interned in concentration camps as though they were art galleries. Inspired by Lynn Nicholas' award-winning book of the same title, Europa cuts a swath from Vienna to Paris, from Pisa to Leningrad. This epic saga of lost and sometimes found is powerfully illustrated through case histories and glorious works of art. Consider the case of Jacques Altman, a Parisian Jew taken into Nazi custody and ordered to sort through a mountain of art and artifacts seized from the apartments of Jews deported to death camps. His grief over the death of his parents and brothers was compounded by finding the effects from his family home, including photos he had to leave behind when he was sent to a concentration camp. Or consider the plight of Maria Altmann, the Vienna-born heir of the Bloch-Bauer family, Jewish sugar merchants. Her family's home was commandeered by the Nazis, who seized Gustav Klimt's shimmering portraits of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, and hung them in the Austrian National Gallery. After a protracted legal fight, Altmann was awarded the Klimt paintings. (In 2006, she sold one to cosmetics mogul Ronald Lauder for $135 million, the most ever paid for a painting. Today, it is the centerpiece of the collection at New York's Neue Galerie.) The film by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham celebrates the underknown heroes of the French Resistance who safeguarded masterworks such as the Mona Lisa and Winged Victory. It also glorifies the little-known "Monuments Men" of the U.S. military, charged with protecting works of art and architecture from Axis annexation and Allied bombs. The Monuments Men literally mined for lost artworks, finding missing treasures in a salt mine at Alt Aussee in Austria and Florentine masterpieces in an Alpine prison. The return of their art - their patrimony and pride - occasioned a jubilant victory parade in Florence in 1945. Throughout the film its makers pose the question of whether saving a work of art is as important as saving a human life. The question is not answered, and perhaps ultimately unanswerable. Yet Europa movingly shows how for many, art and artifacts are living things. The film's final scenes focus on a German man dedicated to reuniting confiscated sterling silver Torah ornaments to the descendents their original owners. When he returns the rimonim, the bell-festooned "hats" that bedeck the holy scrolls, to a congregation, their music rings dow --Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer Movie Critic
Top Customer Reviews
This doc begins with a discussion of the Nazi's hatred of modern art, which they considered a "degenerate" Jewish form, and their obsession with collecting classical works of art. From there the film proceeds chronologically through the German invasions of Austria, Poland, France and Russia. In each place the Nazis plundered great works of art. Some were taken into private collections, such as the vast number owned by Hermann Goering, the Nazi's second in command. Others were placed in storage, with Hilter's ultimate goal being to create a massive Fuhrer Museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria.
Fortunately, massive evacuations were undertaken at the Louvre in Paris and the Hermitage in Leningard, which successfully hid numerous works of classic art from theft by the Nazis. But it wasn't only the Germans who did the plundering. The Soviets also engaged in massive looting of German art during their raids on Berlin. Also some Italian art and architecture was destroyed by American bombing. But, to their credit, the Americans also begin sending in Monuments Men who were entrusted with helping preserve art from further destruction and confiscating the works that had being stolen by the Germans.
The film contains a mix of extraordinary archival footage with narration by Joan Allen and interviews with various art historians and others. At close to 2 hours, it is rather long for a documentary and some may find it slow at times.Read more ›
As an instructor in 20th Century World History I have viewed hundreds of films relating to the Second World War. This is the primary area I focus upon with my students.
The Rape of Europa is exceptionable film making and is unlike any other documentary both in its outstanding storyline and engaging cinematic presentation.
Well over ninety-percent of the photographic imagery and historical background content was absolutely new to me.
This is a film everyone should view and own in DVD format for their personal or family collection.
I urge every educator to purchase a copy for their classroom, every librarian for their institutional patrons.
My Highest Recommendation *****
The first DVD contains the original documentary, which tells the story of the well-organised and premeditated looting of Europe's artistic masterpieces by the Nazis. It's a great and not previously much-aired story, well told. Sometimes it seems like Hitler's desire to steal the best art from across Europe for his own museum was not the least of his reasons for waging war.
The second DVD contains basically extended versions of the interviews edited into the documentary. Some of the extra material thereby aired is a bit tedious, but mostly it adds, usually covering the less art-related side of the stories but often engrossing nonetheless.
The extra content on the third DVD is much more art-related. It ranges from deeper delvings into the repatriation issue and the moral, legal and financial factors involved. For me this evidence of the more distant relatives of the victims of brutal art theft now taking a less public-spirited and more selfish attitude to these works, which should belong to us all, forms a strong contrast to the selfless devotion of the heroes of the film, who I'm sure would not be pleased to know that their efforts have, in some cases, ended in works now languishing in vaults rather than shining out from the walls of museums. These heroes now include those working to protect all our patrimony in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. This last topic is impressively covered on the third disc too. There's also some fascinating background to the Czartoryski Museum, the home of Leonardo's `Lady with an Ermine'.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
One of the best documentaries about the travesty of art theivery by the Nazis during WWII and also the valiant efforts to recover, restore and replace it.Published 5 days ago by Meremebjo
Very informative, well-made documentary. Arrived in perfect condition. Good price and quick shipment.Published 7 days ago by tina m gorskey
An awful period in human history where the worst of man surfaced since my family had. Art stolen during the war it really was a touching and sad filmPublished 29 days ago by Robert S. Walterman
Gives very detailed but concise summary of the problem of Nazi looting and the complex situation and enormous task the Allies faced trying to rectify it. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Fedoradude
Some parts were extremely moving. The return of the painting by the Utah Museum of Fine Arts to the Seligmann daughter was wonderful to witness and I applaud the museum's decision... Read morePublished 2 months ago by Roman Descendant
This was a g ift for my sister in law for her birthday. She lives in KY.Published 4 months ago by Louella Hall