Annihilating a Collective Memory

"Hitler believed modernists
couldn’t see color as it was in nature, or humans as they were in
life," remarks one of the scholars interviewed in The Rape of Europa
a documentary on the artistic pillaging perpetrated by the Nazi
army during World War II. "He viewed this as a racial deficiency."

And with that, we learn yet
another aspect of the Führer’s demented psychological make-up, thoroughly
extrapolated over the two-hour course of this captivating film. Religion,
race, politics, and apparently artistic leanings – Hitler was thorough
in his prejudices. And with art, just as with all his other biases,
his distastes seem to stem from his own insecurities.

In 1907, an eighteen-year-old
Adolf Hitler was rejected from Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts. The
film would have it that this occurrence was the seed for his misanthropic
leanings: "Many of the members of the academy were Jewish," we’re
told, and it’s suggested that this may have fueled his resentment
later on. Perhaps it’s a tad over-speculative, but nevertheless one
wonders what path young Hitler might have taken had he been admitted
to the school.

More disturbing (and convincing)
than the film’s psychoanalytic probing into Hitler’s iniquity is
its analysis of raw data and records. We see the dictator as he composes
a list of paintings and sculptures he wants for his collection, which
he will eventually exhibit in a national museum of the Third Reich.
Before raiding a given country, a team of art historians and forensic
specialists pinpoints what masterpieces to plunder before letting the
troops wreak their havoc. According to the film’s website, by the
end of the war, the Nazis had looted one fifth of all the known artworks
in Europe. (Perverse as it may be, I found myself wishing that our nation’s
leaders had such a high regard for the fine arts.)

In addition to dismantling
their military and political infrastructures, Europa
clearly depicts Hitler’s desire to dismantle nations’ cultural infrastructures,
too. In France and Italy a certain delicacy is shown (as Hitler respected
their traditional artists), but in Russia and most of all in Poland,
the seizing of art is meant to symbolize the felling of an ‘impure’
society. Decimating a population is one thing, but annihilating its
art is tantamount to annihilating its collective memory; Hitler contrived — actually contrived — not just to destroy countries, but their
histories as well. Cultural obliteration is usually a by-product of
war; here it was the plan. This is exactly what made Hitler so evil,
and The Rape of Europa for the most part does an effective job
showing it.

Speaking now strictly from
a cinematic standpoint, the film endeavors to be perhaps a bit too thorough.
While all the stories herein are captivating, they do get repetitive.
The evacuation of Russia’s Hermitage Museum, for example, is a reiteration
of the Louvre’s evacuation, which is shown earlier in the movie. While
both have their tragically fascinating aspects, and both were incredibly
important events, on screen one does not reinforce the other, but merely
echoes it.

Later on, the narrative strays
when we come to Italy, and the Allies are shown to be the ones destroying
the art in the air raids on Axis positions. In this instance, the destruction
is
incidental, and the segment does little to prove the documentary’s
central thesis of art appropriation being an integral part of the Nazi’s
plot.

Nevertheless, this meandering
by no means detracts from the overall impact of the film. The Rape
of Europa
is a shocking — but easily palatable — study of an
otherwise unexplored phenomena of the Holocaust, and proves (yet again…despite
what certain Iranian politicians might say) that we still feel the reverberations
of World War II today.