The Third Reich’s systematic theft of European art has a fifty-year history in feature films, from John Frankenheimer’s thriller The Train(1964), to George Clooney’s recently released Monuments Men(2014), The Rape of Europa, however, offers an ambitious documentary exploration of the Nazi plunder of art from occupied countries and the far-reaching effects of those acts that persist to the present day. Based on Lynn H. Nicholas’s extensively researched 1994 book of the same title, the cinematic adaptation covers a broad range of issues generated by the Nazi’s appropriation of art and other culturally important objects—from patriotic smuggling during World War II to efforts at preservation, tracking, and return by American Monuments officers, and finally, the social, political, and economic tension that continues to surround these works. The film, though it departs from the dramatization of its fictional counterparts, is every bit as engaging as fiction, as it chronicles the winding history of the confiscation of European art by Adolf Hitler and the continuing story of the recovery and restoration of the surviving pieces.
Over a period of twelve years, as the film relates, the Nazis seized and destroyed art on a scale unprecedented in history, with millions of works confiscated from their owners. While the Allies returned most of the art following the war, much still remains missing. After the initial postwar efforts toward restitution, Cold War attention turned elsewhere, and remaining works of art languished in storage, or in the hands of unscrupulous dealers who waited for an opportune time to move them slowly back into the global art market. However, the opening of Eastern Europe’s archives at the end of the Cold War revealed that many works had survived, and this, combined with an increase in Holocaust scholarship and commemorations of the end of World War II, led to the reexamination of these records and the renewal of the search for missing work.
Blending historical references with the narrative, the film creates a clear picture of this complex history, maintaining its focus on the chronological order of events as they unfold. Josh Peterson’s editing style presents transitions with ease, as different time periods are examined, giving additional clarity to the material. The understated narration of actress Joan Allen supplements informative on-screen interviews with art dealers, curators, and officers of the Allied Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives task force (the Monuments Men dramatized in the recent film of that title), which, combined with archival stills (including images of Hitler, Hermann Göring, and Heinrich Himmler with European art, Monuments officers engaged in [End Page 49]recovery, and the evacuation of the Louvre) lend authority and authenticity to this intriguing story.
The film explains that Hitler dreamed of becoming a painter, but was denied entry to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. As he gained power, he ordered an obsessive sweep of the prestigious private and public art collections of occupied Europe, enabling the creation of collections for an Austrian museum in Linz, as well as personal collections for himself, Goring, and other Nazi officials. As Jonathan Petropoulos notes in the film, “The Nazis were not just the most systematic mass murderers in history, they were the greatest thieves.” All art, however, was not precious to Hitler, and the pieces he deemed “degenerate” were purged from the museums. He despised modern art, specifically the art of the Impressionists, and attempted to remove as many pieces as he could find. It is speculated that one fifth of all European art was confiscated or destroyed, leading to drastic measures on the part of curators and local citizens to preserve what remained. The Louvre, for example, evacuated a number of major pieces to safer locations. These individuals became the unlikely heroes as they attempted to conceal certain works from the Nazis.
The Rape of Europabrings a new prospective to this well-documented dark period in history, but the real adventure begins with the post-war efforts to revive the culture of a ravaged Europe. As the...