The Rape of Europa

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I caught an early look at The Rape of Europa. It’s a documentary of roughly two hours drawn heavily from the 1994 book of that name by Lynn Nicholas that won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Nicholas told the story of the Nazi plunder of European artworks and architecture during World War II. The film has been making the festival circuit for a while and will start turning up in theaters this month.

Nicholas’ book was an adroit telling of an important story — how the Nazis looted or demolished European treasures in a campaign of unprecedented theft and deliberate destruction. So I wish I could say that the documentary, by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham, was equally impressive. It’s a lucid and instructive film, and sometimes a moving one, but with very much the tone and tempo of a PBS doc that’s been inflated to movie screen size. Everything about it, the talking heads, the even tempo, the subdued narration by the actress Joan Allen, makes it feel like a project that was made for a small screen but has escaped for a while on to larger ones.

All the same, it weaves its way through some crucial episodes in the history of delusion, greed and hubris. No doubt because of the young Hitler’s thwarted ambition to become an artist, as Fuhrer he developed grand ideas for the cultural dominance of the Third Reich and the subjugation of other nations. His campaign against degenerate art, the “hit list” of works he wanted to take from other nations, his plan to make his hometown of Linz into a grandiose European culture capital — it all followed from that.

The Nazis’ taste in 20th century art ran to Aryan kitsch, or at most to the attenuated Modernist stylings of an Arno Brecker, but they knew a Vermeer when they saw one and they knew how to snatch and grab on a scale that Napoleon, an art thief of the first magnitude, could only dream about. It became common for party leaders to emulate the Fuhrer by amassing their own art collections. One easy route of course was the outright theft of art from Jewish families. The film builds a framing device around Maria Altmann, whose aunt was Adele Block-Bauer, the woman encased in a golden forcefield in Klimt’s famous portrait of 1907. That’s the one that Ronald Lauder spent $135 million on last year after an Austrian court returned it to Altmann, who had campaigned for decades it get it back from the Austrian National Gallery, where the Nazis had long ago handed it off.

The film makers are scrupulous in acknowledging the Allied actions that led to the destruction of major sites, especially the bombing that detroyed the medieval abbey at Monte Cassino and the frescoes in the Camposanto in Pisa. But they also make plain that, unlike the Germans, the U.S. and Britain were not conducting a deliberate campaign of cultural obliteration. And you have to have a soft spot for any film that manages to find so much unflattering archival footage of the always dreadful Hermann Goering, the blowsy looking and drug addled Luftwaffe chief who piled up an enormous art collection consisting almost entirely of stolen goods.

But really, the only good picture I know of him is the one taken after he self-administered that fatal dose of cyanide.