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Scum, celebrating: The Rape of Europa.

Barbarians at the Museum Gates

By Ann Morrow

The Rape of Europa

Directed by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham


Toward the end of World War II, recalls a witness, “Göring’s train” was rumored to be loaded with schnapps, and was overtaken by resistance fighters. “First-comers got the schnapps,” the witness reports. “The second wave had to settle for 15th-century masterpieces.” The interviewee speaks with rueful irony, but he isn’t exaggerating: While commanding the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring stole or plundered tens of thousands of artworks and transported them to his country chalet.

Based on the book by Lynn Nichols and directed in traditional documentary style, The Rape of Europa examines the Nazi looting of the art repositories of Europe, beginning with Hitler’s purge of “degenerate art” (including Picassos and Van Goghs) from German museums and the theft of artworks from Jewish dealers and collectors. The plundering occurred simultaneous with the war: In Poland, the Nazi objective of total annihilation centers on destroying the magnificent Warsaw Royal Palace; meanwhile, an iconic Viet Stoss church interior was dismantled and shipped to Berlin.

Edge-of-your-seat interesting and often moving, this objective travelogue through the largest transfer of material culture in history follows the fate of several paintings as a reference point. One of the paintings is Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man (vanished without a trace); another is Leonardo’s Lady With Ermine (which narrowly escaped pillaging). Europa concludes with the discovery of a long-sought-after French painting, in Utah, in the late 1990s. An “unsophisticated collector,” Hitler had an ambition to build a Third Reich museum and stock it with the treasures of Europe, which was inspired by his visit to Mussolini in Italy and a tour of Florence. An appreciation for antiquity, however, didn’t deter him from wanting to level Paris and wipe St. Petersburg off the face of the Earth. The stated aims of the Nazi juggernaut (narrated with unobtrusive neutrality by Joan Allen) are perhaps even more sickening and shocking in contrast to the big-screen close-ups of the masterpieces and monuments in peril, such as the Louvre’s Winged Victory. The towering yet fragile statue was painstakingly evacuated by “truck drivers and secretaries,” the museum staff having been drafted.

The film also covers the heroic transport of the contents of the Hermitage to Siberia, and explores some questions regarding the relative value of saving cultural artifacts at the expense of human lives. This argument is wrenchingly highlighted by an Allied bombing of a 13th-century mountaintop monastery in Italy thought to be a Nazi stronghold (it wasn’t). A camera lingers on the “pax” painted above the monastery entrance, and then briskly moves on to FDR’s formation of preventive strategies that would allow the U.S. to “save Europe” without increasing the desecration of its cultural heritage. Perhaps the most successful of those strategies was the deployment of “monuments men”—artist-soldiers sent to the front as advisors. After the war, some of them were instrumental in the restoration of ruined art sites, a task made more difficult by the Nazis’ vindictive acts of wanton destruction as they retreated.

The Rape of Europa is thorough to a fault; it covers enough ground for several films, especially with its inclusion of the dilemma of Soviet “trophy hunters” who retaliated by amassing their own troves of purloined art. But as one Russian says (and the film helps to illuminate): “Sometimes people don’t understand how deep this war still is for us.”

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