2006 // USA // Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, and Nicole Newham // March 9, 2008 // Theatrical Print
C - Whether or not any given viewer will find The Rape of Europa to be engaging will depend to a large extent on whether they find the subject matter itself engaging. The directors seem shamefully reluctant to utilize the medium of film to convey anything that couldn't be gleaned from the book of the same name by Lynn Nicholas. The result is a documentary that rests only a notch above the standard History Channel fare. The Nazis' plundering of European artwork and cultural heritage is a topic that, I will admit, fascinates me. The Rape of Europa is as comprehensive and courageous a treatment as one could expect in a two-hour feature. Anyone not dazzled by the subject at the outset, however, might find their interest fading as the film wears on.
What The Rape of Europa does quite well is condense the complexity of the Nazis' art crimes into an accessible package, all without sacrificing the rich detail necessary to convey the scale of the evil enterprise. There's no scrimping on the facts and figures here, and in many ways Rape plays as a sort of grim World War II travelogue, prowling from one culturally devastated city after another: Vienna, Warsaw, Krakow, Leningrad, Paris, Florence, Pisa, and Berlin itself, to name a few. At the same time, Rape takes the time to examine the motivations behind the Nazis' art crimes, from racial ideology to personal prestige. (Although linking Hitler's own failed artistic ambitions to the Reich's cultural agenda struck me as a little too glib.)
Rape features enough appealing anecdotes to keep the story from descending into textbook tedium. These include the battle over the ownership of a Gustav Klimt masterpiece, and a German official's journey to repatriate Torah crowns to the descendants of slain Jews. The film also makes excellent use of talking heads, tapping not only art experts and victims' families, but also local residents of the war-torn cities and American officials who acted as catalogers and preservers in the wake of the Allied victory. The only real weakness in the presentation is the narration by Joan Allen, whose voice is a touch too soft-spoken and colorless to convey the Romantic melancholy that this material needs.
One the whole, The Rape of Europa is a smart, slick, watertight documentary film product. And that's sort of the problem. It's clearly from the History Channel school of documentary filmmaking, and relies almost entirely on the intrinsic appeal of the subject matter to keep the film afloat. This wasn't a problem for me personally, since I can't get enough of this sort of dense historical confection, rich with archival footage and firsthand accounts. Yet when I look at the other documentaries that 2007 offered, there's something more than a little uninspired about The Rape of Europa. Just in the past few months, I've seen documentary films of stunning visual artistry (Into Great Silence, Manufactured Landscapes), films that employ their medium to marvelous effect (Operation Homecoming, My Kid Could Paint That), and films of astonishing humanity (God Grew Tired of Us). There have even been films with stories significantly less epic than The Rape of Europa that managed to be a more compelling (The King of Kong, Deep Water). In comparison, the directors' effort here seems, well, functional.
In the end, The Rape of Europa depends to a significant extent on its audience's curiosity. That said, viewers with even a modest willingness to be educated will discover a smooth journey with a sweeping view. The Rape of Europa isn't an artful film, but it the sort of finely-tuned audiovisual lecture that so many topics deserve (at the very least). The shameful art crimes of the Third Reich are no longer lacking in that regard.