Film depicts looting of Europes artistic heritage |

Film depicts looting of Europes artistic heritage

"The Rape of Europa," a documentary about the looting of Europe's art treasures, shows Sunday, July 1, in the SummerFilms series, at Paepcke Auditorium. (Menemsha Films)

It’s fairly common knowledge that, before he set his sights on conquering Europe and wiping out Jews, Slavs, Gypsies and communists, Adolph Hitler wanted to be an artist. His talent, however, fell short of his ambitions, and Hitler was turned down twice by the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. There have been suggestions that his thwarted art career led to his general frustration and hatred, and more specifically to his anti-Semitic obsessions; several directors of the Academy of Fine Arts were Jewish.

Hitler’s artistic pursuits were the subject of the 2002 film “Max.” Dutch filmmaker Menno Mejyes’ fiction looked at the young Adolph (played by Noah Taylor) through the eyes of Max Rothman (John Cusack), a Jewish art dealer trying to persuade his friend to stick with painting, rather than the heinous course he eventually takes.Less well-known is that Hitler brought his interest in art into his life as a politician and murderer, and even spread his obsession with collecting art through the upper ranks of the Third Reich. As told in the documentary “The Rape of Europa,” this interest didn’t manifest itself as a creative venture, but as a destructive one. The final result of Hitler’s latter-years artistic desires was the scattering of Europe’s great art throughout the Continent’s underworld, the destruction or damaging of numerous treasures, and an ownership puzzle that pits governments and museums against claimants to this day. Alongside the killing of upward of 60 million people, Hitler’s legacy includes an art pillaging that was nearly unfathomable in its scale. On May 8, 1945 – the day the Allies declared victory over Germany – American forces also raided an immense, underground fortification in the Austrian Alps, and found several museums’ worth of stolen art that Hitler had helped himself to.”The Rape of Europa” – directed by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham from Lynn Nicholas’ 1995 book, and narrated by a somber Joan Allen – illustrates this looting with an equally impressive trove of documentary footage and mind-boggling statistics, and, to a lesser degree, a scattered focus. The film makes an awkward transition from Nazi plundering to Allied bombings, which had some of the same consequence – endangering Botticellis, Raphaels and Michaelangelos – but to a higher purpose. Also clumsy is the tacked-on ending that attempts to illuminate the link between art and humanity itself. But “The Rape of Europa” stands as a fascinating, stomach-turning history, and adds another facet to a subject that still commands – and deserves – our attention.

Hitler, it is revealed, had a sense of taste. He despised the modernism that flourished in pre-World War II Vienna, associated as it was with Jews. He favored Old Masters, sentimentalism, and anything that glorified Germany, Nazism and the Aryan race.Hitler began his artistic conquest by purging German museums of what he termed “degenerate art” – including Picassos and Matisses – selling it at bargain-basement prices, or destroying it altogether. The first architectural project built under the Third Reich was the House of German Art, for which Hitler personally chose objects for display.As the German army rolled over Poland and the Low Countries, and into France and the Soviet Union, he raided the collections of those countries, with discrimination. In Poland, Warsaw – seen as a Slavic city – was essentially pulverized, down to the Royal Castle. From Cracow, however – seen as more Germanic – Hitler preserved the booty, including the spectacular 16th-century altar at St. Mary’s Church, which he carted back to Germany. Europe’s two grandest museums – the Louvre and the Hermitage – put their massive collections in hiding, heroically trying to preserve their cultural history.

Among Hitler’s dreams was to build in his hometown of Linz, Austria, the world’s biggest arts complex. In his final days, in his bunker under Berlin, we see him obsessing over the model for his favorite component of the center, the Linz Museum.”The Rape of Europa” shows Sunday, July 1, at Paepcke Auditorium, in the SummerFilms series.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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