Recovering the masterpieces of Europe
by Jason Blair
THE RAPE OF EUROPA: Written and directed by Richard Berge, Nicole Newman and Bonni Cohen. Cinematography, Jon Shenk. Music, Marco D’Ambrosio. Narrated by Joan Allen. Actual Films, 2008. Unrated. 117 minutes.
There is a story well-known to art historians regarding the origins of the Second World War. During the early 1900s, three young Austrian artists were applying to the country’s top art academies. Two of them, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, were accepted and went on to become masters, while Adolf Hitler, then a young bohemian painter, was rejected — not once, but twice. Years later, Kokoschka imagined world events had Hitler been accepted and Kokoschka rejected. “I would have run the world quite differently,” Kokoschka is reported to have said, while Hitler’s greatest offense would have been a lifetime of bad art.
This anecdote gets a passing mention in The Rape of Europa, a remarkable documentary on the “plundering bureaucracy” created by the Germans before and during WWII. For 12 years, the Nazis looted or destroyed more than one million works of art, a staggering number that amounts to one-fifth of the artworks of Europe. The purge began in Germany, where paintings Der Führer found “degenerate” — modernist treasures by Van Gogh and Matisse, for example — were removed from museums and sold at auction, almost for free. Then in Austria, the organized looting of Jewish property began, including the collections of the country’s most prominent Jewish families. These paintings required experts to sort and catalogue them, work which inspired ever more ambition on Hitler’s part, including a “hit list” of prized foreign art that appears to have influenced Germany’s invasion strategy.
The scale and coordination of the pillaging was astonishing. Since antiquity, societies at war with one another have attempted to debase, if not erase, their opponents’ culture. But never before was organized plundering so broadly systematic. Crate upon crate of seized foreign art was secreted by train to remote locations — alpine castles, underground salt flats — which became, almost overnight, the great illicit art institutions of the world. Yet emotionally, Europa is at its best when it isolates individual families and their losses, including their individual works of art: paintings hidden in walls, for example, or in the case of the Mona Lisa, an ambulance. Or the Raphael masterpiece, Portrait of a Young Man, which remains missing to this day.
The triumph of Europa is its remarkable period footage, which puts you inside burned libraries, bombed castles and shelled churches. The effect is an intimacy of the grotesque — not the grotesque of singed bodies or torn limbs, mind you, but of treasures as old as civilization itself being manhandled, stolen or outright destroyed. While the loss of modern art is the focus of Europa — in Russia alone, Tolstoy’s and Tchaikovsky’s estates are destroyed, seemingly on the same day — you may pale, as I did, during the American shelling of the Cassino monastery in Italy, a sixth-century structure sacrificed to the Allied cause. Such was the complexity, morally and strategically, of the effort to beat back the Germans while at the same time trying to avoid inflicting the same damage the Nazis did.
The recovery phase of Europa is perhaps the documentary’s strongest, focusing as it does on the “Monuments Men,” many of whom survive today. Monuments Men were the American art experts sent to the front lines to coordinate the paintings’ recovery once the German retreat began. Many of these men went on to lead the great museums of the world, but during WWII, they helped redress the greatest art crime ever committed. One castle alone contained 49 truckloads’ worth of art, which took over a year to empty. An adaptation and extension of the 1995 book by Lynn Nicholas, The Rape of Europa is a moving chronicle of a process of destruction, recovery and redistribution that continues to this day.
The Rape of Europa shows at 7 pm July 11 and 12 and 1 pm July 13 at DIVA. $6.