Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Rape of Europa and the Heroism of the Monuments Men

The Rape of Europa
Directed by Berge, Newnham, and Cohen
Menemsha Films

They were the best and the brightest of the Greatest Generation. They were a handful of highly educated and cultured American military officers, charged with recovering and protecting Europe’s artistic legacy. It is these so-called Monuments Men who emerge as the true heroes of the outstanding documentary The Rape of Europa (trailer here), available today on DVD.

Largely based on the NBCC Award-winning book by Lynn H. Nicholas, who often appears as an on-screen expert, Europa significantly deepens viewers’ understanding of WWII. Nicholas convincingly argues Hitler and his fellow National Socialists allowed their appetite for prestigious plunder to influence their war plans, persuasively pointing to the shopping lists German art experts drew up prior to each military invasion.

Refreshingly, Europa rejects any suggestion of moral equivalencies. Certainly, the Allies did at times destroy important monuments (which was always exploited by Axis propaganda). It was war, after all. However, Europa makes it crystal clear that great efforts were made by American forces to avoid such collateral damage, with Gen. Eisenhower explicitly ordering his commanders to “respect monuments so far as war allows.” By contrast, the retreating Germans deliberately wrecked destruction on the irreplaceable landmarks of Florence and other cities, simply out of evil spite.

Charged with minimizing the damage to Europe’s architectural treasures and restoring its looted art, but working with little material support, the Monuments 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 recovered the treasures of Florence and initiated the restoration of Pisa’s all but destroyed Campo Santo under desperate conditions—an effort which continues to this day.

A clear moral distinction between the Allies is also strongly implied. The Americans had Monuments Men. The Soviets had Trophy Brigades. The Americans returned Nazi loot to the governments of its rightful owners, whereas the Soviets loaded now twice-looted art on trains headed east. Europa also documents the revelation of seventy-four such trophy paintings in the Hermitage, which became a cause célèbre for Russian Communists and ultra-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.

Using the complex controversy surrounding the disputed ownership of Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (often referred to as the Gold Portrait) as its touchstone case, directors Berge, Newnham, and Cohen have well-organized a wealth of fascinating material, including some remarkable eye-witness accounts. They are not afraid to broach controversial issues, and address the Holocaust with honesty and sensitivity. When Europa was released theatrically (becoming one of the top five grossing documentaries of the year), I thought it was one of the ten best films of the year. After revisiting it on DVD, my respect and enthusiasm for this documentary remains undiminished. I recommend it strongly to anyone who values the art and culture of Western Civilization.