Say this for Adolf Hitler, he did love art. That love had dire consequences, though: the plundering of tens of thousands of artistic treasures as the Nazis marched through Europe. Hermann Goering ran Hitler a close second as uber-art thief. The Luftwaffe had to wait while Goering made 20 trips to occupied Paris to decide on acquisitions for his personal collection, which ultimately comprised 1,700 paintings more than the National Gallery of Art's entire European holdings as well as statuary, textiles and furniture.
Although the story of the cultural devastation the Nazis wrought is remarkable, it's relatively little known. "The Rape of Europa," a documentary based on Lynn Nicholas' 1994 book, seeks to rectify that. It does so through period footage (much of it riveting), newly shot material, and an abundance of talking heads.
The movie includes several astonishing stories, any one of which merits a film of its own. Hitler's dream of a mammoth Fuhrermuseum for his hometown of Linz, Austria, is at once dizzying and pathetic. The evacuation of "The Winged Victory of Samothrace" from the Louvre during the early days of the war is a veritable cliffhanger.
One of the true heroines of the war was Rose Valland. Hired by the Nazi art gatherers to do clerical work, she secretly compiled a comprehensive catalog of what they stole. (Her new employers failed to notice she spoke German.) Or there's the story of the "monuments men," U.S. soldiers assigned to accompany front-line units to preserve damaged art and retrieve looted objects. There were fewer than 200 of them, but they included the likes of the celebrated Williams College art historian S. Lane Faison and New York City Ballet founder Lincoln Kirstein.
Unfortunately, these stories get buried among too many talking heads (Nicholas is one) and a larger, diffuse account of the devastation the war wrought. Note that both the "Samothrace" evacuation and the monuments men are peripheral to the Nazis' pillaging. The documentary has nearly as much material about the ruinous effect of World War II on cultural artifacts, per se the Allied bombing of Monte Cassino, for example as it does on what the Nazis did. Within a larger framework, all this material might have been accommodated and lucidly laid out. Here the result is often disjointed and frustrating. That 2,000 people lived in the cellars of the Hermitage during the siege of Leningrad is certainly remarkable but not altogether germane to the fate of art during the war.
Not helping matters are Joan Allen's blanched tones as narrator, or the general flatness of the talking heads. Already the complaints have begun about "The War" and Ken Burns overload but not least among the man's talents is a nose for compelling interview subjects.
"The Rape of Europa" is not rated but would probably receive a PG for some archival war footage. Running time: 117 minutes.