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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Review: The Rape of Europa (2007)

* * * 1/2

Director: Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, Nicole Newnham

The documentary The Rape of Europa, inspired by the book of the same name by Lynn H. Nicholas, is a fairly straight forward and workmanlike film, but fortunately it doesn't need a lot of flash. This story of art plundered and preserved during the course of World War II is endlessly compelling even without a lot of narrative pomp and extravagance.

Adolf Hitler and the Nazis are at the centre of The Rape of Europa, unleashing a massive and well-organized art theft operation concurrently their military conquest. Making their way through country after country, the Nazis collected works from Hitler's "hit list," a list of the most famous and revered works of art in Europe, and those works deemed by the Nazis to have no value (mostly Slavic works) were destroyed. This was particularly true in Poland, where countless works were destroyed as the nation itself was virtually wiped off the map (meanwhile, those works spirited out of the country had their preservation justified by the assertion that they were really German).

The connection between art and the Nazis is an important one, both in terms of what they stole and what they destroyed. A large part of Nazi propaganda rests on the notion of the party as one of "culture" and the outward appreciation of fine art was part of what helped the Nazis, in the years leading up to the war, present themselves as civilized men to the world outside of Germany. The Nazis used culture to help legitimize themselves in the public mind, even though their ultimate goal was unquestionably barbaric as evidenced not only by the wholesale slaughter of the Holocaust, but also by the destruction of certain works of art. Art serves a symbolic function in society; it's a way for human beings to say "we were here" and "this is who we were." When the Nazis obliterated works of Polish or Jewish significance, they disrupted the continuity of those cultures. The Rape of Europa does a good job of emphasizing the psychological impact of such disruption both in a general sense (through a discussion of the impact on Polish morale following the elminiation and/or theft of important works) and a more personal sense (a brief interview with a Holocaust survivor who describes a failed attempt to save family photographs).

Though the film focuses largely on the Nazis, it also discusses Allied attempts (not always successful) to defeat the Axis while inflicting as little damage on important art as possible. It touches on the subject of the Monuments Men, a group of art historians, curators and museum directors who traveled through war torn Europe trying to preserve, restore and find missing works of art. I would have liked to learn more about the work of the Monuments Men, as the scope of their work was so staggering and the subject itself is so interesting, but at 117 minutes The Rape of Europa can't really afford to branch off into another expanded story thread.

As it is, The Rape of Europa has enough interesting substorylines to spawn a whole series of films, let alone just this one. From the Monuments Men, to the attempts to restore works of art to their rightful owners, to the strategies of countries threatened with invasion for hiding their most treasured works to protect them from the Nazis, to the politcally fraught issue of art that disappeared into the Soviet block during the Cold War, there is a wealth of interesting subject material here. It's a good film, though I must admit that more than anything, it makes me want to read the book.

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