January 24, 2007

Art During Wartime

Art Fag City: WWII doc The Rape of Europa looks at the plunder, destruction and recovery of priceless works

By Paddy Johnson

SS captain Heinrich Himmler presenting a stolen work of art to Adolf Hitler in the documentary The Rape of Europa (Photo: The Jewish Museum)

Given the huge number of World War II films in constant rotation in theaters, on DVD and the History Channel -- a glut of titles retelling the heroic acts of men in the midst of tragedy -- I'm almost surprised when I discover features that bring something totally new to the table. Take The Rape of Europa, a documentary about the systematic plunder of art by the Nazis during World War II and Allied efforts during and after the war to minimize the damage. Having had its premiere last week at the New York Jewish Film Festival (and screening several times in the upcoming months, most notably on March 4 at The National Gallery of Art in Washington before reaching PBS this fall), the film feels especially current as the Iraq War continues and countless priceless treasures are lost.

One obvious advantage to making a documentary on a war that ended more than 60 years ago lies in the fact that we know more about the invasion plans than we do about those of the present war. This is a key point in Europa, which cites numerous examples of art pillaged by the Nazis that remains disputed or missing, eventually establishing the connections between the Nazis' interest in fine art and their conquest strategies; directors Bonni Cohen, Richard Berge and Nicole Newnham note the strategic invasion of the museums of Florence and Rome, the merciless destruction of Polish architecture and other art believed to be "degenerate" and the pillaging of invaluable treasures from the State Hermitage in Russia. Once the magnitude of Nazi plundering is established, the film discusses the role of Allies like the Monuments Officers -- Americans assigned the responsibility of finding and returning art hidden by the Germans -- and Rose Valland, a French art historian who worked at the Jeu de Paume Museum, a central German art storage depot where she secretly recorded from where and to whom stolen art work came and went.

In part because the movie transitions so seamlessly from scenes like these to the ongoing contemporary efforts to find lost works of art, viewers never feel as though they're watching yet another stock WWII documentary; with rare exception, the filmmakers restrict themselves to the relatively unknown story of art collecting as a Nazi pastime. Particularly illuminating are the scenes revealing the collecting criteria of officers such as Hermann Göring -- essentially quantity over all else; a shot of at least eight stag antlers mounted salon-style on the wall in his immense cottage emphasize how excess had become a part of virtually every aspect of Nazi life. It also underscores the narrative that only moments before informs us that Göring had taken over 700 works of art from the Jeu de Paume Museum for himself. Interestingly, the Nazis would always claim that these works of art had been acquired completely legally, even though this basically meant creating statutes that suited their desires with complete disregard to international law and basic human decency.

The investment in arts and culture within Europe as a whole affected more than just the cultural policy of the Nazis. Later on in the film, we learn that Eisenhower ordered all officers to respect monuments so far as war allows. At the time, the policy reflected the fact that every time a work of art or monument was damaged, the Nazis would call WWII “The War Against Art” -- a political strategy that holds quite a bit of interest given that today such a statement would more likely imply violence towards art than it would impact one nation's opinion of the moral authority of another.

The Rape of Europa maintains its authority because it never presumes that the audience can’t find contemporary relevance without being told or draw other connections on its own. Nevertheless, only moments after we view a brilliantly executed segment on Hitler's suicide at Eagle's Nest, the movie overlays three works of art -- one fading into another to make a giant Collage o’ Art in what amounts to cheesy experimenting with the automated functions of bad editing software. Shortly afterward we are shown a black night sky background upon which the directors have placed thousands of photographs used in the documentary; one or two photos are magnified before sinking back into the sky to show a collective of burning Allied stars. One must hope this will be cut when the documentary airs on PBS later this year, because aside from these points, the film is virtually flawless.

Incidentally, just one day before Europa's premiere screening at the Jewish Museum, The New Yorker published Rebecca Mead’s "An Acquiring Art," which in part discusses the Neue Museum’s recent $135 million Klimt acquisition of the restituted gold portrait Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907). The movie’s footage covering the high-profile dispute between 90-year-old Maria Altmann (the niece of the painting's subject) and the Austrian Museum constitutes a relatively small part of the story, but it does serve as contemporary reminder that the stakes in resolving ownership disputes over stolen art in today’s bullish art market are greater than ever.

Paddy Johnson is the editor of the New York City art blog Art Fag City.

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