The Rape of Europa
If this is what counts for porn in the Army, I’m definitely not enlisting.

Theatrical Release Date: 06/20/2008
Directors: Richard Berge, Bonnie Cohen & Nicole Newnham
Narrator: Joan Allen

There are seemingly endless documentaries and films about WWII, as the “greatest war” is so embedded in the framework of the minds and hearts of a huge segment of the world’s population to this day. Usually, the stories told on-screen are about either the military campaign itself or some biopic about key figures in the war.

With “The Rape of Europa”, a different light is shone on the subject – this documentary is about the rampant looting of art done by the Germans and Soviets (American soldiers pilfered their share too, but we were more about simple possessions and jewelry than paintings and furniture) during WWII and how some of the art was able to be restored to their rightful owners while numerous other pieces are still at large or locked in legal custody battles. And while I truly appreciate a different insight into the events surrounding the war, it’s too bad it isn’t accessible to more people.

I’ll just get the negatives out of the way – this film has the energy of a low watt bulb. You’d think a running time of 117 minutes would be appropriate and manageable but somehow between the three directors, this felt much more like a few segments of a mini-series all mashed together and I jokingly asked someone on the way out of the theater what day it was.

In addition to the extremely slow pacing, there were multiple points at which I thought the film was coming to end … only to have it go on … and on … and on. I’m all for thoroughness, and appreciate that the story spans from just before the outbreak of WWII to present day, but it all just felt so static and dry. Joan Allen’s narration, while smooth and precise, is also so smooth and precise as to help lull you into a lower state of consciousness.

Now that isn’t to say that the film, based on the book of the same name by Lynn H. Nicholas, isn’t informative. There is a wealth of information and wonderful archival footage on display here. Whether it’s the stories about great masterpieces, how battle tactics changed in order to preserve key art collections and monuments or the tales of the Monument Men (artists and art historians billeted with troops to protect art as much as possible throughout the course of the way) – all of that was information truly refreshing to discover. This is the kind of film that should be required for art and history classes, high school and college alike.

It’s one thing to be told briefly in a textbook that Adolf Hitler was an art fanatic and aspring artist himself. But to see the huge stockpiles of art he and the Nazis collected, as well as the equally numerous pieces of art destroyed for not meeting their “standards” is another thing entirely.

What I found most interesting was to see how the looting and desire for great art shaped the progress of the war itself. Hitler and his cronies has prepared a list of art masterpieces they wanted to bring to Germany before the war even started. It was one of the goals as they tried to conquer all of Europe. To see how the Nazi elite took to Hiltler’s passion for art, all for the sake of seeming elitist and cultured, was astounding.

Even more interesting (though not necessarily a little known fact) was that the filmmakers highlighted how Hitler’s rejection from the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts due to a perceived lack of talent (though I think his paintings were pretty good) fueled his rage against Jews as he believed they were largely responsible for not admitting him to the school. To try and imagine a world where Hitler was accepted and went on to some measure of an artist’s life rather than pursuing political aspirations and being the spark for the death of tens of millions of people is simply mind-boggling.

Other fascinating elements of the film were the descriptions of how great museums like the Louvre and Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg (Leningrad) evacuated their impressive and vast collections of art prior to German invasion. Thanks again to some great collected footage, we get to see what a monumental task it was to move hundreds of thousands of pieces of art all for the sake or preserving the world’s culture in the face of such despicable ambition and lust for power.

I especially liked that the Mona Lisa had her own ambulance to whisk her away, so specially sealed to preserve the right mix of humidity that when it was opened upon arrival at her first hiding spot (great masterpieces stayed on the move to prevent capture), the curator assigned to her well-being has passed out inside … though the Mona Lisa still looked great.

It was little anecdotes like this or being able to follow specific painting’s ordeals from the war until now like Gustav Klimt’s famed Gold Portrait (Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer) that kept me intrigued and engrossed in much of the film. It’s just too bad this felt like such a drag in spots and it reminded me of the latest Ken Burns documentary about WWII. Sure, the information is incredible but I would also like that information to flow in a more entertaining fashion so I can keep from making that jerking head motion that signals to the rest of the audience that I need a nap.

Either helping or hurting this drowsy effect is an excellent score by Marco D’Ambrosio that was as beautiful as a lullaby … though it also seemed to have the same effect, unfortunately.

I hope I don’t sound too harsh, as the filmmakers have crafted an excellent repository of information about World War II that is a far cry from the typical stories we’ve all seen and heard before in countless other projects. However, aside from art buffs and documentary fanatics, I’m not sure how entertained anyone else might be after watching this.

As such, I’m afraid I can only give “The Rape of Europa” a 3 out of 5. From a historical significance standpoint, it delivers strongly … I just wish it was easier to sit through and I fully admit that other people with longer attention spans and more regular viewers of PBS will surely enjoy this more that I did. And if you are a teacher of art or history, please get a copy of this to show your students – the insights within the film are well worth a few hours of class time.