Thursday, October 18, 2007

Movies: The Rape of Europa

Sometimes art looks better on the silver screen than in real life (e.g. Pollock), probably due to the infusion of light, but when this happens, we want to let our eyes linger. The Rape of Europa, though, is a tease, flinging picture after picture up for our delectation, but then snatching it away. It's an appropriate (if unintended) visual reenactment of the film's topic: the art snatched away from dealers, collectors, and museums as Hitler marched across Europe.

The documentary opens with the oft-repeated fable of Hitler's rejection from art school, substantiating and garnishing that fact by mentioning that Egon Schiele (who happens to be one of my favorite painters of all time, and whose pornographic drawings of Wiemar prostitutes in woolen stockings perfectly define "degeneracy" as used by Hitler) was accepted to the same school the year that Hitler was not. One talking head snarks that Hitler was a capable, but unispired artist, while (extremely competent) watercolor landscapes flit across the screen.

Our appetites are whetted with the mysteries of missing paintings, stolen during the war and never since recovered, which may be circulating in underground crime rings, hanging in private apartments, whose owners are oblivious to their provenance, or, most thrillingly, painted over, such that the present owner does not know what he or she possesses. From there, we move into history and stock footage, and more talking heads extemporize on the tastes of Hitler and Goering (basically, they had pretty decent, if somewhat staid taste). We find out that Hitler had plans to Hausmanize his home town, and make its main attraction (amongst a concert hall, an opera house, and a library) a museum to put the Louvre, the Hermitage, and the Uffizi to shame. In order to do that, he raided or tried to raid the collections of each to augment the collection he had already begun from art confiscated from wealthy German, Austrian, and Polish Jews. The Louvre and the Hermitage had experience evacuating their collections after previous dangers (World War I, anyone?), and moved their art into hiding in castles, basements, and secret private residences.

We also see the destruction that war in general (Americans sometimes to blame as much as Germans), mostly in the form of shelling, wrecked on art and architecture, and the film briefly touches on the Roberts Commission, which began at this time in hopes of protecting international treasures (and which is still in affect, although the army has apparently done a good job of ignoring the Roberts Commission's list of protected buildings in Iraq). We are also introduced to a group of "Museum Men," scholars, artists, and curators, who were sent to work alongside regiments and rescue art toward the end and then after the war. Caches of literally thousands of stolen paintings, sculptures, and tchochkas were found in basements, attics, and boxcars all over Germany. As much was restituted as possible; the rest was given to this museum and that. As I said, thousands of things are still missing, some of which would be worth hundreds of millions.

For all of this information, the doc dragged more than it delighted. As I've already complained, most of the pictures were whisked away before I could get a good look. The only other people in the theatre were two and threesomes of women over the age of fifty (to be expected, I suppose), and the film's pacing targeted them perfectly. All in all, though, I was informed and appalled, and determined that I must go to the Hermitage. Good enough, I guess.

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