Rape of Europa

Demons stealing Soul . . .

"There are a hundred thousand men born to live and die who will not be as valuable to the world as one canvas." Sherwood Anderson

The Nazis disposed of more than 6 million Jews; we may never know how many works of art they plundered from the great museums and private residences of Europe, but it's safe to estimate those works in the millions as well. The estimable documentary Rape of Europa gives a sometimes beautiful account of the loss at the hands of Adolph Hitler (a failed artist with a dream of building a world-class monument in his Austrian hometown of Linz) and his sybaritic lieutenant, Hermann Goering.

The atrocities are counterbalanced by the heroic efforts of Europeans and American Monuments Men to save the works, the former spiriting the art away to alpine hideouts and the latter helping allied bombers avoid museums and scrupulously cataloging the returning pieces. The transportation of the fragile Winged Victory from the Louvre to the countryside is more exciting than any modern CGI masterpiece.

Almost as an afterthought, the film shows the incomprehensible destruction of churches and homes whose ancient architectures are cultural museums themselves. I had forgotten the extent of the damage inflicted by both the Germans and the Allies on medieval cities.

In a tone of reverence, a bit like the understatement of Night and Fog, narrator Joan Allen recounts the horror of Nazis carelessly trucking away priceless masterpieces during invasions and bombing bridges and museums vindictively as they retreat. Meanwhile an obscure clerk is heroically marking down the transactions so that 60 years later works can be returned to their rightful owners.

Gustav Klimt's "Gold Portrait of Frau Bloch-Bauer," which opens the documentary, eventually is returned to its rightful owners and later fetches $135 million at auction. Such a transaction is a crass vindication of the atrocities, but such symbolism is all we may have left to remind us, as this documentary so incisively does, that demons roamed the earth stealing the soul out of whole civilizations.