Nazis versus art

Film shows the struggle to preserve culture

The events of the Second World War were so enormous in scope that the sheer scale of the global catastrophe can obscure the qualitative man-sized details. The noble and fruitful aim of The Rape of Europa is to pare down the era in an effort to gain a singular perspective on both its causes and its effects. The lens the filmmakers chose for their documentary is art — coveted stolen recovered and restored.

Adolph Hitler’s artistic aspirations are well-known but writer-directors Richard Berge and Bonni Cohen’s meticulous research expounds upon his misbegotten efforts at a career as a painter and posits that his rejection by the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and subsequent misanthropy may have played a major part in shaping European and ultimately world history. Perhaps the board of admissions at the academy recognized a certain incompleteness in Hitler’s work which does seem to possess a surprisingly sound if lifeless technique when shown briefly onscreen. They surmised to their aspiring pupil’s dismay that Hitler’s paintings were not art in much the same way that Hitler was a man but not human.

In this context the Fuehrer’s obsession with art and architecture seems to have been a desperate grasp at the humanity that was incomplete or entirely absent within himself. He admired but could not love the pieces that he viewed; when he found that he could not truly connect with the passion behind these works he either hoarded them or destroyed them. His efforts seem in hindsight to have been less about acquiring the art for his own fulfilment and more about ensuring that no one else could have it. For all of his fanciful talk of Linz his planned cultural epicentre of the new Europe that of course never materialized his vast hoard of priceless paintings and sculptures were instead found at the end of the war over a quarter of a mile beneath the surface of the Earth in an abandoned salt mine in Austria where no one could see them.

The ugliness of the Nazi quest to raze every memory and abscond with every shred of cultural identity in Europe is played in opposition to the efforts of museum curators and workaday citizenry fighting to protect and preserve their heritage and ultimately their humanity. The Rape of Europa celebrates these people and the inextinguishable hope that their efforts symbolize — it’s hard to imagine a greater challenge to hope than the Third Reich. Those people who accepted and responded in kind became an inspiration by revealing humanity’s resiliency and affirming its love for those passionate and magical things that define us as human and that we call art.