Holocaust documentaries almost always focus solely on the overwhelming loss of life that occurred during Hitler’s regime, with people’s belongings and the buildings they were taken from serving as mere symbols for the destruction of the victims’ lives. “The Rape of Europa” is not that type of Holocaust film. In fact, “The Rape of Europa” deals more with property than people, as it explores the Nazis’ systematic looting, pillaging and destruction of priceless works of art and architecture throughout Europe during World War II.
Combining conventional interviews with both archival and contemporary footage, the film presents the oft-recounted tale of the terrors and atrocities that occurred during the Holocaust via the fresh perspective of how Hitler’s regime wreaked havoc on millions of dollars worth of art treasures in the many countries his army conquered, as well as the destruction done to priceless works of art and architecture during both the Allied and Axis bombings of Italy, Germany, France, Russia and Poland. Narrated by Joan Allen and written and directed by up-and-comers Richard Berge, Nicole Newnham and Bonni Cohen, the film focuses on Hitler’s rejection from art school as a catalyst for his obsession with art – an obsession that ostensibly drove him to plan his takeover of Europe around the concurrent capture of cultural treasures from around the continent.
The film weaves an intricate tapestry of art and history, recounting the trajectory of World War II warfare within the context of each country’s collections of art and artifacts. Equating Hitler’s program of ethnic cleansing with his simultaneous destruction of what he considered ‘inferior’ art, “The Rape of Europa” presents the facts of the Holocaust in a dry and straightforward manner, letting the images of vast warehouses full of stolen treasures do most of the talking. The film seamlessly transitions from past to present and back again, contrasting the often overwhelming images of beautiful masterpieces being carted off to Hitler’s cache or reduced to little more than rubble with the mesmerizing tales of how contemporary art historians are tracking down and restoring these lost treasures.
The meticulous planning and execution of Hitler’s takeover of European art is as sick and twisted as any other facet of his existence, with details like the ornate catalogue of stolen art he perused to pick out pieces for the museum he was erecting to honor himself and the elaborately-designed underground art restoration and storage facilities he created in an abandoned salt mine serving to illustrate the grotesque contrast between the highbrow appreciation of art and culture the Nazis meticulously cultivated and the inhumane atrocities they perpetrated. Contrasting Hitler’s plan for an elaborate museum to showcase the stolen art with Hermann Goering’s hunting lodge-turned impromptu art gallery, the film truly manages to showcase the central role art played in the Nazis’ final solution for Europe.
“The Rape of Europa” also features fascinating footage of the way in which everyone from military men to men off the street pitched in to help preserve treasures throughout Europe, even as bombs were falling overhead. With rarely-seen footage of masterpieces like Michelangelo’s “David” being entombed in a protective brick casing and the Louvre’s the “Winged Victory of Samothrace” being carefully carried down the Daru staircase with its wings trembling, the film’s footage of people rescuing art is just as moving as its footage of art being destroyed – if not more so. Ultimately, the film is an uplifting story with a message more focused on the power of art – and the power of the people who love it – than anything else. As one interviewee says in reference to the return of a trainload of treasures to Florence after the Allied victory, what it comes down to is the triumph of beauty over horror and destruction. Its title might be about ravaging, but “The Rape of Europa” is definitely more about reconstruction – the reconstruction of art, the reconstruction of artifacts and, most importantly, the reconstruction of the human spirit. Sure, it sounds corny, but it’s actually compelling, captivating and definitely worth catching at its Santa Barbara premiere next Wednesday.
“The Rape of Europa” is playing at Campbell Hall at 7:30 p.m. on April 25. Tickets are $5 for UCSB students.