The Rape of Europa. Directors: Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, Nicole Newnham. Narrotor: Joan Allen. Menemsha Films. 2013. 117 mins.
Forget the Hollywood movie Monuments Men (which is a lot of fun, by the way). The Rape of Europa is a documentary that tells much the same story using not only actual film and photographs of events but includes interviews with several of the leading actors who, while not George Clooney or Matt Damon, are every bit as personable. And while the dramatized film includes a good bit of pyrotechnics, it’s possible to convey destructiveness without them.
In fact, The Rape of Europa manages to be every dramatic as the film. In both instances, we already know the essential premise of the story, that the Nazis were not only brutal mass murderers but art thieves, as well, establishing a systematic “plundering bureaucracy,” and that a small cadre of dedicated men managed to restore a good bit of this stolen art to its owners.
But there’s something about the understated explanation of the heroes themselves, devoid of fabricated romantic interests and all the details filmmakers add to “enhance” their story, that makes the unembroidered truth more compelling, more heroic, and more valuable. And there are “subplots” within the documentary that the film never considers.
For example, the documentary treats us to the very emotional return of The Icon of Vienna – an important 20th portrait by Gustave Klimpt depicting Adele Bloch-Bauer, the Jewish wife of a wealthy Austrian industrialist and art patron. The portrait’s theft from the family took decades to resolve and involved a complicated court case, so the viewer is understandably thrilled to see, by the film’s end, footage of the painting being returned to Bloch-Bauer’s niece. It was a small but satisfying moment.
Another lovely vignette involved a contemporary German historian who made it his work to restore silver Torah crowns to relatives of murdered German Jews. The monetary value of the crowns is negligible; their emotional and spiritual value is immeasurable.
The dramatized version, single-mindedly attached to its plot, can’t ask the interesting breath of questions the documentary does: three artists apply at the same time Austria’s top art academies. Two are accepted. One, young Adolf Hitler, is rejected, prompting one of the artists to wonder: “Imagine if Hitler would have been accepted and I would have been rejected. I would have run the world quite differently and he couldn’t have done that harm that he did, being a bad painter.”
It’s a facetious remark, of course, but one that echoes throughout the rest of the documentary, as one watches Hitler’s mad lurch from country to country, hunting for his favorite pieces of famous art. Was Hitler’s anti-Semitism fueled by his rejection from an academy that included many prominent Jewish artists? Was Belgium invaded for the Ghent altarpiece?
These sound like preposterous ideas, posited so bluntly, but in the context of this fascinating documentary have a sickening plausibility. One sees long ledgers of paintings and sculptures, along with photographic scrap books, that were complied to help Nazis identify where desired art was located. A small architectural model of a new Linz, with the Fuehrer’s Art Museum at its heart, is an actual artifact of Hitler’s – one over which he continued to “obsess,” even as his inevitable defeat became apparent.
One cannot help but marvel at the poignant impulse to save one example of beautiful, human accomplishment in the midst of bombs and blood. No one “wants their son to die to save a building” and yet, the “death” of a Florentine bridge or an historical monastery filled with wonderful frescos also causes great pain to those who survive, a reminder of both personal loss and collective loss. “It wasn’t just about the beauty of the art,” one explained, “but that the return gave the Italians and the Allies a sense of victory, the victory of beauty over horror, over disaster. We had won.”
The photo of a museum wall, whose frames were stripped of their paintings, is a powerful image. Contemplating the cultural patrimony these walls had held, the extraordinary efforts people made to hide their art from the Nazis when their own lives were at stake, the efforts of the real “Monument Men” to locate what was stolen and hidden, and the painstaking postwar work to reconstruct what was destroyed, is not one story but a hundred, one more gripping than the next.
“Art belongs to humanity,” The Rape of Europa says in some of its concluding remarks. “Without this, we are animals – we just fight; we live; we eat.”