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Looting Europe

Filmmakers track Nazi art thefts.

Courtesy Richard Berge/Actual Films

SAVING FACES: Capt. James Rorimer and troops retrieve stolen works stored in Neuschwanstein Castle.

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By Marguerite Rigoglioso

Jacques Altman tells his story quietly for the camera. As a young Parisian Jew in 1942, he was about to be deported to a death camp in Poland when the Nazis instead transferred him to a new slave-labor camp at one of the city’s train stations. There he had to sort plunder arriving by the truckload from apartments vacated by fleeing or captured Jews—a job he carried out under the weight of grief over the death of his parents and five brothers. Panned shots of old still photos taken at the station illustrate his narrative: mountains of dishes, paintings, toys, books.

“One day I recognized my family’s things,” Altman, now in his late 80s, recalls. “I saw photos, I saw our furniture. I was in shock. There were suitcases, too, so I grabbed a suitcase and filled it with photos. . . . When I was deported to Birkenau we had to leave everything behind. It was all destroyed. I lost all my family memories.”

Altman’s experiences and those of other survivors are told in The Rape of Europa, a documentary made by a group of Stanford film graduates—producers Richard Berge, ’84, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham (all MA ’94) and director of photography Jon Shenk, MA ’95. Soon to be released in theaters and film festivals and shown on PBS in 2007, the film trains a new and harsh searchlight on the Hitler regime’s looting of personal treasures and the cultural patrimony of nations.

The documentary, five years in the making, takes its name and basic outline from an award-winning 1994 book by Lynn H. Nicholas. Her revelations of the Nazis’ large-scale theft of European art, and efforts by the Allies to preserve it, gripped the four filmmakers. The book “was filled with one amazing story after another, and it was so intrinsically visual,” Newnham says.

The four had worked together on other projects since graduation (some more intimately than others—Cohen and Shenk are married) and came together to produce this project at Actual Films, Cohen and Shenk’s San Francisco-based company. Mindful of the advanced ages of the eyewitnesses, they got to work quickly with interviewing and raising money. The film cost more than $1 million to make, and was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Agon Arts & Entertainment, among others. “We hope it has a long life,” Cohen says.

Almost from the start, they got lucky with opportunities to bring Nicholas’s chronicle to life. One backer alerted them to an impending Christie’s auction of Picasso’s Buste de femme à la chemise, a recently re-emerged painting that had been torn from a German museum wall in 1937 as part of an effort to cleanse the country of what Hitler deemed “degenerate” modern art. The crew scurried to New York to film the portrait’s sale for more than $6 million—an event that serves as The Rape of Europa’s opening sequence.

Another episode that coincided with filming was the legal battle between the Austrian government and Maria Altmann over Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. That painting, appropriated when the Nazis commandeered the Bloch-Bauer home while occupying Austria, was one of hundreds of thousands of artworks, including furniture, sculpture and religious objects, that Hitler’s people stole from private collections and state museums from France to Russia. Hanging in the Austrian National Gallery in Vienna since the war, the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, along with four other Klimt paintings, was awarded to Altmann and her family in January 2006. (The portrait made headlines again in June when the heirs sold it to cosmetics mogul Ronald Lauder, reportedly for $135 million, the most ever paid for a painting.)

After the verdict, the production team visited Maria Altmann in Los Angeles, where the paintings were on temporary display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. For the first time, Maria could see the five works where she lives—a scene made to order for the film’s ending.

Luck played a part, but the project took determined digging via the web, letters, visits to archives and museums, and the help of onsite research assistants who combed the historical, official and artistic records of Poland, France, Italy, Germany, Russia and Washington, D.C. “They’ve uncovered footage and photos that no one’s seen for a long time,” says author Nicholas, who helped with contacts, potential backers and script critique. “Also, many of the case histories in the film are not even in the book; the film team really did their work.”

Archival shots include men packing and trucking away crates filled with some of the Louvre’s more than 400,000 priceless works of art. They convoyed these treasures from the museum’s eight miles of galleries to castles in the French countryside in anticipation of Luftwaffe bombing raids. Another segment takes the viewer through a wild descent on subterranean railroad tracks to the salt mine at Alt Aussee, Austria, where Hitler stored endless racks of art with the plan of moving them to his hometown, Linz, where he envisioned an imperial city.

There’s also the briefing of American bombardiers prior to the aerial bombing of Florence. With all the bravado of Gregory Peck in Twelve O’Clock High, an officer tells his men to avoid hitting the city’s architectural treasures—monuments the German army later blew up or ransacked for their Michelangelos, Botticellis and Raphaels. “I received the footage without sound from a pilot who responded to a posting on a veterans’ website,” says Berge, “and, amazingly, our researcher in D.C. was able to find it with the sound.”

Some companion film features one of the so-called Monuments Men—American artists, historians and curators recruited to the front lines to salvage and protect monuments and art. It shows Capt. Deane Keller, a Yale professor, discovering the great Italian paintings stolen by the Nazis and left in a jail in the Italian Alps. He transported them back by train to an ecstatic mob in Florence.

The production team shot on location throughout Europe and the former Soviet Union, and interviewed in person a number of surviving Monuments Men, including Kenneth Lindsay, professor emeritus at Binghamton University in New York. As a 25-year-old art history graduate and unranked soldier, he helped locate, sort, identify, catalogue and return thousands of looted artworks from his checkpoint in Wiesbaden, Germany.

“These Stanford graduates have made one of the greatest antiwar films ever produced,” Lindsay says. “They use art as a vehicle to convey the greed, ethnic bias and sheer cruelty of the Axis.”

Author Nicholas hopes The Rape of Europa will become a staple among educational films about World War II. “These days, for many, the war has been boiled down to Normandy and Pearl Harbor,” she says, “but this film puts the entire history in context and humanizes it by giving it a personal face. It’s about much more than the fate of artwork.”

Indeed, the film touches on the theme of fate itself. It explores Hitler’s artistic leanings and his failure to be admitted to the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, then introduces Oskar Kokoschka, who was accepted at the academy and became a well-known modern painter. Kokoschka used to joke that if Hitler had been admitted and he had been rejected, he would have run the world quite differently—leaving the viewer longing for an alternative history in which a young man named Adolf fulfills his dreams of glory by making art, not stealing it.

Looking back on the project, Cohen says, “For five years we had the privilege of contemplating the profound necessity of art and culture to the existence of humanity. It was an epic production that took longer than the war itself.”

Berge observes, “Although I look forward to the next project, whatever it may be, I can’t help thinking that no future film will be able to match our rich experience with this one.”

MARGUERITE RIGOGLIOSO is a Bay Area freelance writer.

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