It would seem impossible to somehow magnify the unspeakable horror of the Third Reich, but that's exactly what this engrossing and thoroughly impressive documentary does.
In addition to the incalculable human and collateral damage suffered during the "Good War," there was a staggering blow to the cultural treasures of Europe. Since his days as a failed painter, art became one of Hitler's numerous obsessions, and as the most obvious expression of the moral decay he perceived at the heart of German society, art became a rallying point in his mission to reshape the nation and later the world. In a quest for "purity" he systematically set out to purge what he deemed "degenerate art" and, in the buildup to war, massive amounts of artwork were auctioned off or simply destroyed.
That which survived was stolen, as a fine art collection was seen as paramount to the personal worth of a good Nazi officer, with the flamboyant Hermann Goering displaying a particularly gluttonous appetite for the stuff. What art they weren't greedily amassing for personal wealth, the Nazis were busy blowing up, with much of the Continent's greatest landmarks in constant danger of shelling. Even such icons as Pisa's leaning tower weren't safe, and a failed attempt to level it managed to shatter an equally priceless storehouse of ancient frescoes nearby, shattered into tiny pieces that are still being put back together today.
The film also does a nice job of showcasing the heroic efforts of the Allied "monuments men," soldiers who worked feverishly to preserve masterworks even while the bombs were still falling, and continued to try to recover missing or damaged pieces for decades. There is also the truly mind-blowing notion that the immense collections of Russia and France were hidden away from the invading armies, with the "Mona Lisa" being boxed up just hours before the goose-stepping goons marched through.
Handsomely produced, though never flashy, the film plows through a mountain of historical data in a workmanlike manner, piling up info and revelations at a swift pace. The three-headed directorial team of Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham sifted through mounds of data and archival footage to make something cogent out of sheer chaos. Though all the grim info starts to pile up, the serene and aloof narration of Joan Allen has a soothing effect. The Rape of Europa offers a sobering reminder of how close the world we know once got to utter oblivion, never trivializes the human disaster by comparing it with the loss of great art, and shows how both were part of a lasting tragedy.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.