In George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, The Monuments Men, Hitler’s egomaniacal plan to steal the greatest pieces of art in Europe to populate his giant Furher Museum, is turned into a classic Hollywood adventure of everyday men becoming wartime heroes. It’s a fun enough movie for the most part, but it’s still a movie. And certain artistic licence is expected when any true story has to be bent to fit a neat, three act structure. So while Clooney’s version of the story definitely has a deep love and respect for the art it’s chasing, it’s covered by an unavoidable Hollywood sheen of artificiality. But it did make me want to know more about this story, which lead me to The Rape of Europa.
A straight forward, no frills, classic talking head documentary, The Rape of Europa uses it’s no nonsense approach to really cram in the info. But it’s a good cram, the kind of cram that makes you feel smarter once it’s over. It also covers more time and info by being split into two distinct parts. The first hour focuses on the German theft, while the second looks at the allied attempts to track the pieces down, even interviewing a few of the actual Monuments Men.
It also digs deeper into the Russian Trophy Brigades, who openly took great works of art which they saw as reparations for the millions of people lost fighting the Germans. Where The Monuments Men makes the ruskies moustache twirling villains, Europa goes to much greater lengths to let them tell their side of the story.
I watched The Rape of Europa within hours of seeing The Monuments Men, so it was impossible to not compare their different versions of the same story. Clooney’s movie gives us plenty of shots of massive warehouses filled with paintings and impressive figures like “five million pieces of art recovered”, and it really did hit me at the time. But watching Europa, these figures all of a sudden became a lot more real, a lot more devastating.
More than just the art, the documentary gets more into the racial persecution of the time. The Monuments Men addresses the issue too, but only in the way that it’s impossible for any WWII move to not get there at some point. I can’t explain how, but Europa connects these works of art to the heritage of the culture how made them, better than The Monuments Men did. More than just paintings or sculptures, they are a part of these people and their formation into the people and cultures they are.
“Art is what makes us human”. This quote in the closing minutes of The Rape of Europa almost makes the combined four hours of this documentary and The Monuments Men seem like they pussy footed around the real heart of the issue. In those six words, I think I got it more than the rest of the two movies in their entirety.