The Doc Option: Watch ‘The Rape of Europa’ Instead of ‘The Monuments Men’
Some people have tired of our glut of World War II films. On the one hand, I sympathize. But on the other hand, WWII was such an expansive conflict that it generated thousands of stories that are well worth telling. The trick is that we should make fewer movies in the Saving Private Ryan/Band of Brothers mold and more about other aspects of the war. The Monuments Men seems like an admirable effort to do just that, but the film has not been well-received. On the one hand, this is a shame, since the movie dramatizes a fascinating part of the war, one that many people don’t know about. But on the other hand, as usual, documentaries have beaten fiction to the punch in telling this tale. So if The Monuments Men is a letdown, you can learn about the exact same thing with The Rape of Europa.
The “Monuments Men” were the members of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, a section of the allied forces that operated during the latter years of WWII. A collective of art historians and experts, they were dedicated to preserving the culture of Europe, which had been just as ravaged by the Axis assault as its people and infrastructure. As the film tells us, the Nazis were not just among the worst killers in history; they were some of the most prolific thieves, as well. Hitler’s regime stole one-fifth of Europe’s art. It was the job of the Monuments Men to recover these works.
One major problem with this mission was that it was sometimes in conflict with Allied military objectives. One sequence in the film sees former Monuments Men and soldiers alike recounting the arguments over whether or not to destroy a historic villa which the enemy had turned into a stronghold. It’s an honestly difficult question, and any given group of viewers is likely to come away with a different set of arguments over the balance between the value of life and the value of art and history.
But The Rape of Europa isn’t content to keep its mind in the past. Unlike a good deal of historical docs, it thoroughly explores the contemporary effects and implications of its subject matter. At the time of the film’s making, there were still thousands of works of art that were never returned to their proper owners. And not all of them were simply lost; many were stored in various museums and other institutions around the world. For the sake of preserving the art, it was kept away from its proper owners. This is a phenomenon that continues to this day. The more recent documentary Portrait of Wally covers one particular case of how a family tried to reclaim a painting taken from their ancestor during the Holocaust, and how New York’s Museum of Modern Art resisted them.
The Rape of Europa is not extraordinary, but it is a fine example of good historical nonfiction. Writers/directors Richard Burge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham do a good job of adapting historian Lynn Nicholas’s book of the same title. The film condenses the book’s various sections into a 90-minute timeframe that delivers all the necessary information without feeling abridged. Rather, it makes you want to learn more about the subject. The Monuments Men probably isn’t the best way to do so, but there are plenty of other resources at one’s disposal.