The Rape of Europa
The art of war
By Devin D. O’Leary
The Rape of Europa
Directed by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, Nicole Newnham
Are you familiar with Stendhal Syndrome? It’s a psychosomatic condition, first documented by the 19th-century French writer Stendhal, in which people can be overcome by great works of art. Stendhal reported heart palpitations, dizziness and an almost religious sense of epiphany upon viewing the cultural riches of Florence. It’s an odd concept, to be sure--but one that seems all the more clear upon viewing The Rape of Europa, a mesmerizing, astonishing, highly emotional film about Adolf Hitler’s systematic campaign to steal and/or destroy Europe’s great works of art.
Everyone is aware of the toll, in human terms, that World War II brought to bear. The millions of Jews lost in the Nazi death camps. The overwhelming number of Russians sacrificed on the Eastern Front. These are figures indelibly etched on our world’s history. No doubt about it: World War II was a bad, bad thing. But to truly understand a thing, sometimes you need to look at the small details.
The Rape of Europa, based on the book by Lynn Nicholas, examines how one mediocre painter who failed to get into a German art institute went on to become the most bloodthirsty world leader of the 20th century. Is it possible that Hitler’s failure as an artist motivated him in his genocidal campaign for world domination? It sounds far-fetched, but as The Rape of Europa spells out, art formed a major cornerstone of Hitler’s plan. Among his first programs in Germany was the banning of “degenerate” modern art and the promotion of stolid, sentimental Germanic portraiture as the “national art.” Hitler’s unending dream (he was still fiddling with the architectural models while hiding in his bunker) was to build the largest art gallery in Europe. While his troops invaded neighboring countries, Hitler issued lists of paintings and sculptures from the Old Masters that were to be seized and returned to Berlin. Even his ministers got in on the act, assembling massive collections of purloined art.
The Rape of Europa makes quite clear, quite quickly, that Hitler sought not merely to wipe out people, but to erase entire cultures from the face of the Earth. Images of Warsaw, reduced to rubble for miles on end, point out how far the Third Reich was willing to go to eradicate the art and architecture of anyone deemed “impure.” Stills, films and firsthand accounts of curators at the Louvre in Paris and The Hermitage in Leningrad racing against the clock to remove and hide their entire collections ahead of Hitler’s marauding armies show just how far others were willing to go to preserve that art.
Had The Rape of Europa concentrated solely on Hitler’s attempts to destroy classical art in Europe, it would have been a gripping document. But the film soon spreads out to cover a wider canvas. The stories it brings to light--most of them provided by author Lynn Nicholas, who spends plenty of time on screen--are nothing short of amazing. Imagine, if you will, a young married couple working at the Louvre, tasked with transporting a single wooden crate to a castle in the French countryside and guarding it for the entire war, hopping from estate to estate trying to stay one step ahead of the Nazis. Inside that crate, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. That’s just one jaw-dropping story among dozens.
Quiet, NPR-style narration from Joan Allen, incredible archival footage (much of it in color, even) and a string of modern interviews paint a dynamic picture of the people who fought to save Europe’s cultural history. Among the most interesting are the “Monument Men,” a hastily assembled division of the U.S. Army made up of artists and historians whose job it was to try to preserve buildings, paintings, statues, frescoes--basically 500-plus years of European history--while the bombs dropped and the tanks rolled.
Hitler’s pogrom aside, Europe was a battlefield for many years, and troops often had to weigh saving human lives against destroying historical treasures. One particularly heartbreaking example comes in the story of the ancient Monte Cassino Abbey in Italy; preserved for several bloody weeks, but eventually bombed to dust by Allied forces. Shockingly, the Nazi propaganda machine used the incident to brand Americans as destroyers of art.
Dark as this whole tale might seem, it’s an ultimately triumphant one--the depth and breadth of which are simply staggering. At one point, Allied forces uncovered a hoard of looted Nazi treasures hidden in a salt mine--400 tons of European artworks. And that wasn’t even close to the biggest collection! Even today, efforts go on to find and return examples of these stolen artworks to the descendants of their rightful owners. Tragically, many have been lost forever. But the fact that so many did survive under such horrific conditions is nothing short of amazing.
Compared to an actual human life, of course, a canvas covered in paint is an inconsequential thing. But what The Rape of Europa so skillfully reveals is how important these cultural icons can be to us. Art shows us humanity at its greatest. Mankind can always find ways to destroy, but the ability to create something as breathtaking as, say, Michelangelo’s David (which spent much of WWII encased in a protective brick shell), proves we are capable of so much more that is good and selfless and ultimately beautiful.
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