A recently released documentary has been getting some positive reviews from shocked and impressed film critics despite the redundancy of its content. The Rape of Europa is not only a peculiarly-named two hour documentary, it is a film that has already been made, over fifteen years prior. Europa tells the story of the Nazi holocaust from the perspective of art instead of the millions of human victims. The story is of course fascinating – learning of Hitler and his party members’ obsession with works of art across the continent and the lengths people went to to protect said art is a story worth telling.
The main problem I have with the film—other than it being too long and formulaic—is that the story was told, and with much more rigorous treatment, in an earlier documentary entitled The Architecture of Doom: The Nazi Philosophy of Beauty Through Violence. Peter Cohen’s 1991 pièce de résistance interrogates territory only surfacely considered by Europa.
The newer documentary spends two jam-packed hours describing the varied actions of the Nazis and their plundering of massive amounts of artworks as well as the often interesting stories of groups and individuals who – against all odds – managed to stave off such plunder. The film is a historical romp through six years of war, chronologically following offensives and military movements and atrocities, weaving the story of art throughout. In this way it is a history channel doc, best viewed as another history lesson on the colossal calamity that was WWII – with of course a focus on art.
This is fine if what you are looking for is a straight up description of events as they unfolded and pertained to Europe’s treasure-trove of small and great artworks. If you are looking for an intellectual investigation, even an explanation, around these stories, then dig out a copy of Architecture of Doom, for it is a far superior documentary and one that attempts to draw out the “why” from the “what.”
Cohen’s film deserves credit for laying out the philosophy embedded in the actions of the art-pilfering Nazis. The film explains that concomitant to their obsession with stealing and collecting artworks – as well as their active destruction and de-valorization of “degenerative” (usually abstract) works – was a robust doctrine around rationality, beauty, and violence. Through “pure” art, the Nazis sought to make the world beautiful, and through violence and destruction, they attempted to achieve their imagined and somewhat realized totalizing aesthetic.
Where Europa merely shows us the actions and events around the Nazi plunder (and destruction) of art in Europe, Architecture posits reasons behind such actions – digging uncomfortably deep into the motivations and philosophy of a brutal, genocidal regime that believed an aesthetically perfect world could really be achieved through both the valorization and the destruction of art.
Previously on Art Threat:
America’s war against democracy