Directed by: Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, Nicole Newnham
Starring: Joan Allen (narrator)
Fascinating in its premise, The Rape of Europa is a sometimes intriguing, sometimes maddening essay in the realm of informational overkill. The documentary is a classic example of trying to pack too much into too small of a space, resulting in an almost exhausting experience. Worse, there’s a chance of the film conveying something its makers never intended, but I’ll come back to that later.
The idea of Adolph Hitler being driven onto the path he took because of his failure as an artist is not new in itself. Menno Meyjes’ little seen Max (2002) explored this theme, depicting Hitler’s failure to fit in with—or even comprehend—the art scene of his era as a prime component in what went wrong for Adolph the artist. The Rape of Europa mines similar territory, presenting Hitler’s rejection by an art academy in favor of two more talented artists as the key to what followed, adding the fact that many on the board that passed him over were Jewish. The Rape of Europa goes further in putting forth the image of Hitler setting himself up as the arbiter of what was and was not art as a result of his artistic ambitions—and his hatred for the “degenerate” artists who did succeed where he failed.
It’s a terrific premise that the film explores only up to a point, which is where the trouble starts. Looking at Hitler as a man out to reshape the world in line with his aesthetic judgment is intriguing. That Hitler had a systematic plan for plundering the world of its art treasures (while in the bargain, suppressing or destroying “inferior” art) is a fascinating revelation. That both he and his primary companion in wholesale collecting, Herman Goering, were men of little actual taste—the kind who would undoubtedly have proclaimed a Superman comic-book panel superior to a Chagall painting—makes it all just that much more interesting. But then the film gets down to specifics, and that’s when things start to drag a little.
Then there’s the real downside, the aforementioned issue I said I’d return to. The film has a tendency to focus on art that Hitler approved of—giving short shrift to the works he destroyed, suppressed or displayed in an attempt to prove their degeneracy. We see very little of these works—and it’s not simply a case of many having been destroyed. We’re not even given much by way of example of what was destroyed. I’m sure this isn’t intentional, but by taking this approach, the film carries with it a vague sense of validating Hitler’s judgment. It’s simply a question of balance, but the balance here seems off.
Still, all in all, The Rape of Europa is worth seeing. Parts of it are eye-opening, shedding light on a piece of history that hasn’t been much explored. It’s simply frustrating that the film promises more than it finally delivers, and doesn’t seem to know when to stop—or exactly how.