The relationship between art and the Third Reich has long been a pop culture punch line, from jokes about Hitler's failed painting ambitions in The Producers to the rapacious Nazi collectors in the Indiana Jones series. The actual history behind the fight over and fate of European art before, through, and long after World War II remains obscure, though, one that is explored in The Rape of Europa.
Based upon the a book of the same title -- published in 1995 and honored by the National Book Critics Circle -- The Rape of Europa documents the Nazi theft, pillaging, and attempted annihilation of hundreds of thousands of works of art through World War II and the Holocaust.
Just as significantly, the documentary also tells the story of the fight to save art, from the evacuation of the Louvre and Hermitage to the work of Allied "Monuments Men" to recover looted artifacts in the final months of the war.
The documentary begins and ends with the story behind the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt. Completed in 1907 for his model (and benefactor), it was claimed as state property in Austria following the Anschluss. Decades later the work became the subject (along with four other paintings by Klimt) of a protracted court battle between the nation of Austria and an heir of Bloch-Bauer. The latter was named the rightful owner in arbitration by an Austrian court in 2006. It was subsequently sold to a museum in New York for a reported $135 million, an amount that currently places it among the most expensive paintings ever sold.
Underwritten and produced for eventual public and educational broadcasts and screenings by Actual Films, The Rape of Europa will be seeing a theatrical release in the spring of 2007. A trailer for the documentary -- which is screening on the first day of the Wisconsin Film Festival -- follows below.
The story behind the making of The Rape of Europa is recounted in an autumn 2006 issue of Stanford Magazine, as co-writers and -directors Berge and Newnham are graduates of the university. The article details the five-year gestation of the documentary, and the serendipity that filming coincided with the sale of Klimt's paintings and the auction of a Picasso removed from a German museum years before the start of the war.
"Luck played a part," the article continues, "but the project took determined digging via the web, letters, visits to archives and museums, and the help of onsite research assistants who combed the historical, official and artistic records of Poland, France, Italy, Germany, Russia and Washington, D.C." Eventually, it concludes, the filmmakers hope that The Rape of Europa "will become a staple among educational films about World War II."
In late December 2006, the New York Times published an article about the new book Rescuing Da Vinci by Robert Edsel, one of the co-producers of the documentary. This work takes a closer look at one element of the story in The Rape of Europa, namely the Monument Men and the role they played in locating and saving stolen works of art during the war.
The Wisconsin Film Festival is scheduled for Thursday, Apr. 12 through Sunday, Apr. 15. Tickets go on sale on Saturday, March 17.