‘Europa' a course in (sm)art history

In 1907 and 1908, Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts denied admission to a watercolorist. The Austrian teenager fell into poverty, selling a few paintings; six years later, he enlisted in Germany's army, emerging from World War I as a corporal with a political future. One of the fascinating speculations and observations in “The Rape of Europa” is what might have happened had Adolf Hitler received enough training to become an adequate professional painter.

The title of the documentary comes from the Greek legend of Europa, a Phoenician beauty who so captivated Zeus that he turned himself into a white bull and swam away with her to the island of Crete. It also refers to multiple paintings of the event (notably one by Titian) and the actions of Hitler, who ravaged Europe in multiple ways.

Writer-directors Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham focus on Hitler's plan to loot the nations of Europe, destroy art that displeased him and enshrine the rest in his boyhood town of Linz, where he planned the largest art museum on Earth. (Construction never began.)

Like Lynn Nicholas, whose book they adapted, the filmmakers explore the idea that destroying a culture is a kind of genocide: Remove things that separate human beings from beasts, and they become beasts in the eyes of a conqueror – “subhumans” who can be crushed beneath tank treads without troubling the conscience. (Hitler was the ultimate proponent of ethnic cleansing; he wanted to wipe out not just groups of people he hated but their whole histories, too.)

The documentary has many heroes, from U.S. Army “monuments men” – soldiers sent to protect art or track it down and send it back where it belonged – to a German antiquarian who, even today, achieves small victories by returning religious artifacts to the families of Jews from whom they were confiscated.

Much of the film deals with logistics: the Nazis' phenomenally coordinated efforts to steal art and their victims' equally amazing efforts to protect or conceal it. In one scene, the great “Winged Victory of Samothrace” is spirited away from the Louvre with breathtaking care. (Of course, a Greek nationalist might argue that the French plundered the statue from his homeland in the first place.)

Hitler and Hermann Göring (second in command of the Third Reich) indisputably loved art, whatever their tastes; by the end of World War II, Göring probably “owned” the largest private collection of art in the world except for the Vatican's, including 2,000 paintings.

This appreciation for certain kinds of beauty and creativity makes the Nazi savagery more incomprehensible; you can understand barbarians in the Taliban exploding statues of Buddha in a religious frenzy, but not “cultured” Germans blowing up a Polish palace merely to degrade and humiliate the people of Warsaw. No documentary can explain such a phenomenon, but it's worth contemplating again and again.