Friday, August 31, 2007

Coming Soon: The Rape of Europa

Fine art should be inspiring and ennobling. It should help man relate to his fellow man, and enrich the lives of those who experience it. Yet, whether as objects to be vilified for propaganda purposes, greedily plundered, or spitefully destroyed, the National Socialists were obsessed with works of art. The upcoming documentary, The Rape of Europa (trailer here) details the various Nazis campaigns against art, revealing how truly dangerous the Nazis nihilistic reign of terror was to the survival of Europe’s cultural legacy.

The touchstone work for Europa is Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, described in the film as the most recognizable and celebrated Austrian work of art. Looted by the Nazis, it long hung in an Austrian museum before it was finally restored to the Bloch-Bauer heir. The film also makes the salient point that it is widely known in Austria as the Gold Portrait rather than by its given title, which referred to its rightful Jewish owner.

Based in large measure on Lynn H. Nicholas’ NBCC winning book of the same title, Europa lucidly chronicles the National Socialists’ Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst) exhibit, and other propaganda attacks on modern art. It also describes in detail the scope of their systematic looting Jewish homes and museums, organized at the highest levels, which continued unabated even as the fortunes of war turned against Germany.

Europa does identify some heroes however. First and foremost were the Monument Men, a select group of American officers with elite training in the arts. Given the mission of minimizing the damage to Europe’s architectural treasures and restoring its looted art with little material support, they were remarkably effective. The Monument Men included officers in their ranks like Lincoln Kirstein (co-founder of the New York City Ballet) and painter Deane Keller. It would be Keller who emerges as first among heroes in Europa, having initiated the restoration of Pisa’s all but destroyed Campo Santo under desperate conditions—an effort which continues to this day.

As Europa makes clear, the Soviets also had a similar corps of officers, but tellingly, they were referred to as “trophy” men. One reason many pillaged old masters remain missing is that they were put on trains headed east. The revelation of trophy art in the Hermitage became a cause célèbre for Russian nationalists in the late 1990’s, with the Duma passing a resolution barring the return of these works to the heirs of their rightful owners.

Europa is fascinating and frustratingly topical. It is a very well crafted documentary that has powerful moments, effectively supported by Marco D’Ambrosio’s score recorded by the Prague Philharmonic. To their credit, the filmmakers offer quite a bit of insight, and are not afraid to broach controversial subjects.

Screening Europa makes evident the differences between the values of America and totalitarian regimes like the National Socialists and the Communists (and now it appears, Russian Nationalists). Free societies value art for its own sake, apart from pecuniary and propaganda concerns. Those who share a love of art should see Europa to gain an appreciation for those who protected and restored Europe’s treasures during the continent’s darkest hour. It is an important film that deserves a wide audience. Europa opens in New York September 14th (at the Paris and Angelika).