A thorough adaptation of Lynn H. Nicholas’s book, The Rape of Europa scrupulously details a Nazi practice usually relegated to historical footnotes: the systematic looting and destruction of Europe’s collected works of art. Early Sam and Max-style conjecture—that Hitler’s personal failure as an artist was a root cause of his subsequent government policies—seems to be the film’s only contention not backed by exhaustive investigative research. Otherwise, Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, and Nicole Newnham’s documentary (narrated by Joan Allen) lays out with clarity and precision Der Führer’s methodical, institutionalized attempts to destroy all European art and architecture created by “degenerate” Slavs, and to steal anything else of worth for use in an über-museum planned for his hometown of Lintz.
The enormity of this cultural crime, which also included emptying abandoned Jewish homes of their valuables, is stunning enough. Yet even more staggering is the importance it apparently played in Hitler’s military strategy, as a “wish list” of artifacts actually prefigures the schedule of his European invasions. The filmmakers employ art experts, historians, and Nicholas for factual details, and Holocaust survivor testimony for emotional impact, as with a man who recounts how, after losing his parents and four brothers in the death camps and being forced by the Reich to sort through pilfered goods, he stumbled upon his own family’s personal effects.
At its midway point, The Rape of Europa shifts gears and focuses less on heinous theft—including that perpetrated by Hermann Goering, who assumed an air of intellectualism from his monumental collection housed at a hunting lodge-turned-gallery—and more on select Americans, known as Monument Men, who worked with the armed forces to help protect and save European artworks during the Allied campaign. Their noble efforts may have been in direct opposition to the Nazis’, which were predicated less on art appreciation than on obtaining eminence from the possession of such works, as well as on erasing the very memory of those they deemed unfit. Yet as the directors cogently and captivatingly illustrate, the Americans’ acts of preservation and the Nazis’ destructiveness and inquisitiveness both, ultimately, confirm art’s status as an intrinsic, defining facet of national identity.