Thrill of a 'victory of beauty'

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In a 1946 photograph from the documentary "The Rape of Europa," Polish art historian Karol Estreicher (center, left); Lt. Frank P. Albright, a Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives officer; and two armed GIs prepare to return Leonardo da Vinci's "Lady With an Ermine" to the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, from which it had been stolen by the Nazis.

Austria, the joke goes, convinced the world that Beethoven was Austrian and Hitler German when, in fact, it's the reverse. A quip of similar vintage came from modernist painter Oskar Kokoschka, who was admitted to Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts in 1907, the same year Hitler's application was spurned. "If it had been the other way around, I would have run the world quite differently," Kokoschka cracked. Would that it had been.

Did the academy's rejection of the future Führer inspire his plunder of Europe's cultural masterpieces and his wholesale destruction of work he deemed unworthy?

The Rape of Europa is equal parts history, thriller and inspirational. It's a provocative account of the theft, recovery and repatriation of these artworks that considers the Hitler question. It's an epic about the battle to define Western culture that was a subtext of World War II. And it's a jaw-dropping suspenser introducing those unsung heroes who, in the words of one Florentine, scored a "victory of beauty over horror."

Hitler, whose aesthetic war aligned with his political one, waged a two-front culture war. He greedily annexed the works of those he deemed superior (French, Italian) and systematically destroyed those he considered "degenerate" (i.e., Jewish, Slavic).

While he professed that Jews were racially inferior, this didn't stop him from "shopping" in the collections of Jews interned in concentration camps as though they were art galleries.

Inspired by Lynn Nicholas' award-winning book of the same title, Europa cuts a swath from Vienna to Paris, from Pisa to Leningrad. This epic saga of lost and sometimes found is powerfully illustrated through case histories and glorious works of art.

Consider the case of Jacques Altman, a Parisian Jew taken into Nazi custody and ordered to sort through a mountain of art and artifacts seized from the apartments of Jews deported to death camps. His grief over the death of his parents and brothers was compounded by finding the effects from his family home, including photos he had to leave behind when he was sent to a concentration camp.

Or consider the plight of Maria Altmann, the Vienna-born heir of the Bloch-Bauer family, Jewish sugar merchants. Her family's home was commandeered by the Nazis, who seized Gustav Klimt's shimmering portraits of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, and hung them in the Austrian National Gallery. After a protracted legal fight, Altmann was awarded the Klimt paintings. (In 2006, she sold one to cosmetics mogul Ronald Lauder for $135 million, the most ever paid for a painting. Today, it is the centerpiece of the collection at New York's Neue Galerie.)

The film by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham celebrates the underknown heroes of the French Resistance who safeguarded masterworks such as the Mona Lisa and Winged Victory. It also glorifies the little-known "Monuments Men" of the U.S. military, charged with protecting works of art and architecture from Axis annexation and Allied bombs. The Monuments Men literally mined for lost artworks, finding missing treasures in a salt mine at Alt Aussee in Austria and Florentine masterpieces in an Alpine prison. The return of their art - their patrimony and pride - occasioned a jubilant victory parade in Florence in 1945.

Throughout the film its makers pose the question of whether saving a work of art is as important as saving a human life. The question is not answered, and perhaps ultimately unanswerable. Yet Europa movingly shows how for many, art and artifacts are living things.

The film's final scenes focus on a German man dedicated to reuniting confiscated sterling silver Torah ornaments to the descendents their original owners. When he returns the rimonim, the bell-festooned "hats" that bedeck the holy scrolls, to a congregation, their music rings down the century, rings the sound of freedom, rings the triumph of life over death.


The Rape of Europa **** (out of four stars)

Produced, directed and written by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham, based on the book by Lynn H. Nicholas. In English and French, German, Russian and Polish with subtitles.

Running time: 1 hour, 57 mins.

Parent's guide: World War II documentary with images of death and destruction.

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse, Bryn Mawr Film Institute


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/.