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June 20-26, 2007

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'The Rape of Europa'

Frame job: The Nazis emptied the museums of Europe in search of artistic treasure.

Art Attack

'The Rape of Europa' documents the Nazis' near 10-year-long heist of the art of a continent

By Richard von Busack

JUST WHEN it seems as if every aspect of the Third Reich is covered, along comes this absorbing, extraordinarily good-looking and sweeping documentary, based on Lynn H. Nichols' book. The Rape of Europa sums up the systematic looting of art treasures from Europe by the Third Reich. Did the Reich seek art for the financial value of masterpieces or for their aesthetic worth? In either case, as a force for ruin, the Nazis had no peer. They created library-burning "Fire Units" to destroy Warsaw's books and special "Destruction Units" to level historic buildings. The work continued from the top, all the way to the anonymous German infantryman who was stupid enough to leave his boot print on Leonardo's Lady With an Ermine.

Rewinding a bit, filmmakers Richard Berge, Nicole Newnham and Bonni Cohen point out Hitler was a thwarted artist, rejected from the Vienna academy. One of the most frightening visions here is a sheaf of architectural drawings. Imagine the Führer Museum in Linz, Austria: the largest museum in the world, home of all the art heisted from throughout the continent. Here was the spot Hitler planned for his tomb. As in watching any really incisive study of the Reich, you marvel at how the Nazis combined such loftiness with the morals of a gang of crack-headed burglars.

One gets a little hope when hearing about what was saved from the flames. We learn of the brave rescue of the Winged Victory from the Louvre, and we see an interview with the Frenchwoman who had Mona Lisa as her wartime guest. The selfless protectors of the Hermitage collection took an estimated 1 million treasures to Siberia, guarding the rest of the art throughout the terrible siege of the city. The film also touches on the rebuilding of smashed architectural treasures, buildings as diverse as the Campobello at Pisa and the Warsaw Palace. The directors tell of the "Monument Men," art historians of the U.S. Army who helped protect and supervise the restoration of much European art. Americans can feel modestly good about the fact that the spoils of Europe didn't end up in D.C. Also, U.S. bombers performed one of the great surgical air raids, demolishing the rail yards at Florence without damaging the rest of the city. The archival film of the briefing shows an officer informing the bombing crew that "approximately 10 percent of the world's art treasures" would be below their planes as they attacked Florence. Wouldn't you love to have been part of the military intelligence group that did that kind of math? (I wonder what San Jose's percentage is. )

Before getting too flag-wrapped, note that there is no mention of what happened in Dresden, even if the film describes the bombing of Monte Cassino. That monastery has been rebuilt, but the finale of The Rape of Europa shows us a constellation of photos of missing works, some of which were perhaps permanent casualties of the war. This documentary astonishes us with everything from its research to the unhistrionic narration by Joan Allen. The title The Rape of Europa seems gratuitous, but everything we see here shows that it's well deserved. It's an extremely upsetting movie, though. All the civilizing quality of art failed to civilize these epic thieves.

Movie Times The Rape of Europa (Unrated; 117 min.), a documentary by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham, opens June 22 at Camera 12 in San Jose.

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