Review: 'The Rape of Europa' a riveting documentary

Among the many worthy documentaries that have emerged about the Holocaust, “The Rape of Europa,” based on Lynn H. Nicholas’ best-seller, explores particularly fresh terrain — the Nazis’ calculated destruction and plundering of Europe’s art treasures. Covering everything from lost and found masterworks to ongoing recovery efforts to art-related military strategies, the film provides both a substantial art-history lesson and a stimulating look at why art matters.

An estimated one-fifth of all known European art was seized by the Nazi regime before and during World War II, and in modes both scholarly and name-droppily friendly, filmmakers Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham examine the fate of this art. The interviews, footage and narration they supply add up to a welcomed, jam-packed trip.

The filmmakers portray Adolf Hitler’s culture rampage as an effort to exterminate not only the people deemed inferior by the Nazi brain, but all traces of their existence — an aim leading to the destruction of Jewish and Slavic (largely Polish and Russian) art. Germanic, French and Italian art, meanwhile, the Nazis pillaged. (The loot included Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady With an Ermine” and Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the film’s bookend example.) Some of the prizes ended up in Nazi officers’ homes (Hermann Goering was especially acquisitive); some were slated for an enormous museum that Hitler envisioned.

The film also covers the destruction of art by Allied bombers and, more brightly, successful attempts to hide art from Nazi invaders and recover stolen art. Heroes materialize: museum employees who removed and relocated 400,000 art pieces from the Louvre; and, perhaps receiving too much focus, “Monument Men” from the U.S. military tasked with restoring looted art.

While all this may sound tailor-made for PBS, it’s big-screen material in scope and depth, jelling as a multifaceted look at war, greed and resistance as they existed, in primarily an art-world vein, in vile times. It also resonantly demonstrates the significance of art as a representation of a culture’s essence.

Sadly, such majesty couldn’t enlighten Nazi plunderers “The Lives of Others”-style, but the preservation efforts it inspired make for a knockout story. The sight of the evacuation-bound “Winged Victory” statue being lifted down the Louvre stairs is alone ticket-worthy.

The Rape of Europa ***½

Written and directed by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, Nicole Newnham

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes

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