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The Rape of Europa
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The Rape of Europa tells the epic story of the systematic theft, deliberate destruction and miraculous survival of Europe's art treasures during the Third Reich and World War II. Joan Allen narrates this breathtaking chronicle about the battle over the very survival of centuries of Western culture.
Bringing a radically new perspective to World War II and the Holocaust, this fast-paced docu, based on Lynn Nicholas' bestseller about the fate of European art both under the Nazis and afterward, casts the Third Reich in a wholly different light. Curiously, by narrowing focus, filmmakers widen the absurdity and horror of a war waged, at least in part, for a mon-strously inflated private agenda. This mesmerizing morality play, rich in rare archival footage and complete with heroic Allied saviors, merits a full-fledged arthouse run before reaching larger PBS and cable auds. Like Menno Meyjes' semi-conjectural biopic "Max," docu perceives Hitler's failure as an artist as central to the Fuhrer's gestalt. Relying on actual documents rather than fictionalized epiphanies, film-makers Richard Berge, Nicole Newn-ham and Bonni Cohen make a com-pelling case for the theory, reframing WWII in terms of objets d'art "selected" for Nazi acquisi-tion or extinction. Under Hitler's reign, art-collecting measured personal worth. Extensive footage of Hermann Goering's swag-gering aesthetic oneupmanship, culminating in before-and-after shots of the hunting lodge he converted into a palatial art gallery provides a bleakly comic mirror to Hitler's blueprint for a colossal Greco-German Fuhrermuseum. Hitler, it seems, set about conquer-ing the world armed with a cultural wishlist, his obsession with art often dictating his military itinerary. His "final solution" for so-called inferior or degenerate artwork was nearly as far-ranging as his program for human genocide (the shadow of the death camps implicitly looming large throughout the film). In this context, real or projected atrocities that other docus highlight are here enumerated by narrator Joan Allen with a wry matter-of-factness that renders them more shocking. German newsreel clips recount Hitler's confiscation of various masterpieces (including Da Vinci's "Lady With an Ermine") from Kra-kow museums and simultaneous blitzing of "inferior" indigenous art and massive shelling of monuments. His plan to exterminate the entire Polish people and colonize their land, on the other hand, is presented almost parenthetically. Similarly, shots of vast warehouses of Jewish possessions seem a mere extension of the wholesale pillaging -- until men carrying worn mattresses and dented teapots remind viewers that Hitler not only collected the valuables of Jews he slaughtered, but sought to wipe out the slightest vestiges of their existence. To the German campaign of arro-gance, greed and bloodlust, the filmmakers counterpose the Allies' dedicated art preservers. Extraordi-nary footage details the evacuation of the Louvre (a crated Winged Victory descending the great staircase miracu-lously unharmed), the artwork spir-ited away in carts just ahead of exploding bombs. The Hermitage is likewise emptied out, its curators hiding in freezing underground passages below while, above, remain-ing Russian artwork is tossed into the snow in disdain for all things Slavic. Pic pays particular homage to the Allies' Monuments Men (several of whom appear on camera), whose job was to minimize the damage done by advancing armies and track down stolen works of art. Moving seamlessly from past to present, Cohen, Berge and Newnham document the aftershocks some 50 years later, tracing stolen art pieces still in litigation, foremost among them Klimt's gold-flecked portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. The painting's eventual sale for $135 million adds yet another layer to film's myriad disconnects between the fates of millions and the whims of a few. --Variety Staff, Ronnie Scheib
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
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One of the better known examples of private art that was stolen and lost for decades was the subject of the excellent 2015 movie "Woman in Gold." That is just one example.
and stealing Europe's great works of art, along with the allies attempts to spare art during the war, intellectually interesting, but a bit
dry and even repetitive.
But as the film moves on to the aftermath of the war, and we get more of the human side of the story. Great art treasures are returned
to the lands whose cultures they represent and we see the joy that it brings. We hear both sides of the Russian debate about keeping
the art they took from Germany as a sort of reparation for the horrible human cost of the war. We see restorations still going on 60 years
later with care and passion. We get to know a Christian German who has made it his mission to return beautiful and intricate Torah scroll
caps to their rightful Jewish owners. And in the process the film blossoms into a very human examination of just how important art is to
human beings and to our sense of selves.
Ultimately, what starts feeling like a somewhat academic exercise ends up as a very moving and personal documentary.
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'.
Particularly compelling is the story of struggle by Maria Altmann, a beautiful and elegant 90-year-old, whose aunt was Adele Bloch. The Bloch family commissioned Klimt to paint the portrait, yet it, along with several other Klimt paintings, was stolen from her family home by the Nazis in 1938. The painting was hanging in the Austrian National Gallery for years, as the Austrians consider it their "Mona Lisa." Through sheer will and determination, and a bit of luck, Altmann finally obtained ownership of her aunt's portrait and the other pieces.
If you are an art and history lover, this film is for you, taking you from the Hermitage in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) to all over Italy. It is a gem like the pieces of work it chronicles.