The Rape of Europa

In the third film of our documentary-thon, we saw The Rape of Europa, a feature based on Lynn Nicholas’ book of the same name.

I heard a sentiment expressed recently–not about this movie, which is a fairly obscure little film, but about another WWII-based feature–which went something like, “There were other wars, you know!” From the clich├ęd use of Nazis in computer and video games, to the post Saving Private Ryan deluge of WWII movies, TV series, documentaries, museum shows, art exhibits and strained analogies to current social and political events, it can certainly seem like we’re inundated with WWII over any other event in history.

I’ve heard this same sentiment expressed several times over the past 30 years. I’ve never had any response for it.

The Rape of Europa covers a facet of WWII I’ve never seen treated in detail, unless you count Kelly’s Heroes, to wit, the Nazi raids of art treasures from all over Europe.

The film starts with Hitler’s rejection from art school and proceeds quickly to his rise to power and the attendant expurgation of the entartete Kunst (degenerate art), followed by his grand plans to create a super-museum of all the great artwork of Europe, accumulating as he invaded each country.

But it’s not that simple, of course. There was the systematic stripping of Jews of artwork and–just in case you thought the Nazis weren’t bad enough–their religious symbols (torahs, menorahs, and so on). There was the defensive moves by the Russians and French to protect their artwork, both of whom were used to evacuating art work after a century of industrial-era European warfare.

Then there were the Poles, whose Royal Castle was completely obliterated as punishment for their resistance, the Italians, whose reward for allying with the Nazis was the Nazis destroying their cities as they retreated from the American advance. And, of course, the Americans, a handful of “monument men” trying to convince a bunch of grunts that they should risk further bloodshed to save a monastery or a bridge.

It’s all told with stock footage and still photos, narrated by Joan Allen, and punctuated with interviews of a few surviving children whose family’s artwork was confiscated, monument men, museum curators and the like. Despite this, the drama is all there. Stories of heroism and sacrifice abound here as they do in all tales of WWII. The efforts to restore and return artwork continue to this day, though it is somewhat like unscrambling an egg.

There is a little bit at the end that tells the story of a German official whose job it is to try to reunite all the stolen Jewish artifacts with any surviving community members or their ancestors. It’s probably a powerful story unto itself, and it does remind you that you’ve spent the past 90 minutes focused on the harm done to inanimate things–however culturally important. Unfortunately, it feels a little tacked on to the rest of the movie.

Despite this, it’s fascinating story, and I’m glad it’s finally being told.

Even if there ARE other wars.