By Carrie Rickey
Did the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts’ rejection of the future Fuhrer’s application inspire Hitler’s plunder of Europe’s cultural masterpieces and his wholesale destruction of work he deemed unworthy?
The Rape of Europa, equal parts history, thriller and inspirational, is a provocative account of the theft, recovery and repatriation of famous artworks that considers the Hitler question. It’s an epic about the battle to define Western culture that was a subtext of World War II. And it’s a jaw-dropping suspenser introducing those unsung heroes who, in the words of one Florentine, scored a ”victory of beauty over horror.”
Hitler, whose aesthetic war aligned with his political one, waged a two-front culture war. He greedily annexed the works of those he deemed superior (French, Italian) and systematically destroyed those he considered ”degenerate” (i.e., Jewish, Slavic).
While he professed that Jews were racially inferior, this didn’t stop him from ”shopping” in the collections of Jews interned in concentration camps as though they were art galleries.
Inspired by Lynn Nicholas’ award-winning book, Europa cuts a swath from Vienna to Paris, from Pisa to Leningrad. This epic saga of lost and sometimes found is powerfully illustrated through case histories and glorious works of art.
Consider the case of Jacques Altman, a Parisian Jew taken into Nazi custody and ordered to sort through a mountain of art and artifacts seized from the apartments of Jews deported to death camps. His grief over the death of his parents and brothers was compounded by finding the effects from his family home, including photos he had to leave behind when he was sent to a concentration camp.
Or consider the plight of Maria Altmann, the Vienna-born heir of the Bloch-Bauer family, Jewish sugar merchants. Her family’s home was commandeered by the Nazis, who seized Gustav Klimt’s shimmering portraits of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, and hung them in the Austrian National Gallery. After a protracted legal fight, Altmann was awarded the Klimt paintings. (In 2006, she sold one to cosmetics mogul Ronald Lauder for $135 million, the most ever paid for a painting. Today, it is the centerpiece of the collection at New York’s Neue Galerie.)
The film celebrates the heroes of the French Resistance who safeguarded masterworks such as the Mona Lisa and Winged Victory. It also glorifies the little-known ”Monuments Men” of the U.S. military, charged with protecting works of art and architecture from Axis annexation and Allied bombs. The Monuments Men literally mined for lost artworks, finding missing treasures in a salt mine at Alt Aussee in Austria and Florentine masterpieces in an Alpine prison.
Throughout the film its makers pose the question of whether saving a work of art is as important as saving a human life. The question is not answered, and perhaps ultimately unanswerable. Yet Europa movingly shows how for many, art and artifacts are living things.