Quick on the heels of its two sold-out screenings at SFIFF50, The Rape of Europa is opening Friday, May 18 in Bay Area theatres (Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco, Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley and Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael). Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham's remarkable documentary is based on the book by Lynn H. Nicholas and narrated by acclaimed actress Joan Allen. It begins with the story of Gustav Klimt's famed painting "Gold Portrait," stolen by the Nazis from Viennese Jews in 1938. In a journey through seven countries, the film takes the audience into the violent whirlwind of fanaticism, greed, and warfare that threatened to wipe out the artistic heritage of Europe. For 12 long years, the Nazis looted and destroyed art on a scale unprecedented in history. But heroic young art historians and curators from America and across Europe fought back with an extraordinary campaign to rescue and return the millions of lost, hidden and stolen treasures. Today, more than 60 years later, the legacy of this tragic history continues to play out as families of looted collectors recover major works of art, conservators repair battle damage, and nations fight over the fate of ill-gotten spoils of war. The Rape of Europa tells the epic story of the systematic theft, deliberate destruction and miraculous survival of Europe's art treasures during the Third Reich and World War II.
I recently sat down with Berge and Cohen in the Larsen Associates offices to discuss The Rape of Europa. Richard Berge is a San Francisco-based filmmaker who has produced documentaries for PBS, Showtime, A&E, and others, including Yesterday's Tomorrows with director Barry Levinson and Sing Faster: The Stagehands' Ring Cycle with director Jon Else. He has a Masters degree in Documentary Film from Stanford University. Bonni Cohen is a founder of Actual Films in San Francisco and filmmaker for PBS, BBC, and Arte. She is currently producing Wonders Are Many, a documentary about the making of the Peter Sellars and John Adams opera, "Doctor Atomic." She has a Masters degree in Documentary Film from Stanford University. Her previous films include Democracy Afghan Style (co-director, 2004), The Nobel: Visions Of Our Century (2001), and Eyes of the Storm (1998).
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Michael Guillén: As I was thinking about meeting with the two of you today, I was trying to decide how to approach talking to you about your documentary. The Rape of Europa is so rich, its breadth and depth astounding, that it's almost daunting to begin. First of all I should say how much I respect and appreciate the intelligence you grant your audience. Yours is a truly historical document that I believe will be watched for years to come.
Richard Berge: Thank you.
Guillén: Since I have a particular fascination with the "substantiating connective tissue" between a book and its film adaptation, I was wondering if we couldn't talk first about how you went about securing the rights to Lynn Nicholas's book The Rape of Europa and how you then used her book to structure your film? And what is in the film that is not in the book?
Berge: How do you make the translation from the book to the visual?
Berge: [To Cohen] Why don't you start with how we got the book?
Bonni Cohen: Nicole Newnham is the third of our triumvirate. She and I were working on another film about the combat artists of WWII and she was reading Lynn's book, finished it and handed it to me and said, "We have to option this book." It reads like a Graham Greene thriller. It's a narrative that has a dramatic arc with good guys and bad guys and treasure to be discovered and heroes at the end. Plus, it's a piece of this history that we knew very little about and we had really fancied ourselves as WWII buffs, certainly very well-educated in Holocaust history. Not that this is necessarily a Holocaust story….
Guillén: It's way beyond that.
Cohen: Yes. So we optioned the book and really mostly wanted to visit this new chapter. It seemed to simultaneously humanize the Nazis in this weird way. You got a deeper sense of them as people, not just these monsters who killed people. There were likes and dislikes and obsession and greed and well-thought-out cultural policy. It made the whole tale so much creepier and more evil in its depth. That really motivated us. The thought of putting art and culture at the center of an existential question about how people survive was compelling.
Berge: Lynn was a little apprehensive in the beginning because she spent a lot of time writing that book.
Cohen: She'd spent 10 years! She'd actually read the obituary of Rose Valland in Le Monde and that was what motivated her.
Berge: It may have been hard for her to turn this over to us but once she did and once she saw what we were doing, she trusted us and was supportive all the way, even to today. She's there for whatever we might need her for using her research.
Guillén: Clearly you promoted her. You gave her ample on-screen time to discuss her knowledge and you certainly have motivated interest in reading her book. Admittedly, I haven't read her book so that's why I was curious if the way she structured her book was a template by which you could then outline your film?
Berge: Her history is an exhaustively-detailed one. It's the definitive [history on the subject]. Obviously, people are doing to discover new aspects of this history but she really laid down the main themes and points….
Cohen: …and there are countries that we never get into.
Berge: So she's very comprehensive. She's chronological. We decided, "How are we going to tackle this? Do we have to tell the history of WWII? What can we assume about viewers' knowledge of WWII? Can we just do signposts along the way?" We decided to do chronological and then break it up into geographic themes so each country would represent a certain theme of the aspect of looting or wartime destruction. For instance, in Poland we talk about the degeneracy of so-called Slavic peoples and the [Nazi] need to eliminate their cultural vestiges, whereas in France they preserved it. [The Nazis] liked the Western Europeans. Holland had very much the same experience as France so we decided not to replicate that history even though they could have their own chapter. Italy was also stolen from but we decided to use Italy as a way of exploring the effect of the Allied invasion on art, which was inevitable. That also happened in France but we decided to use Italy as a good example of that. And then Germany is a place where—after it had been flattened—we explored the lengths that were [taken] to hide art underground and in castles to put it out of harm's way. So we tried to use each country as a theme that would fit into a chronology.
Cohen: The biggest departure from Lynn's book for the film adaptation were the contemporary stories. If you're asking a film audience to watch a straight history, it's almost impossible. You have to be able to bring them in on some level so it was a real challenge to find restitution cases that were going to play out during the course of our production period. In fact, we joked about how ridiculous it was to try to write the Maria Altmann Klimt case into the film because we had finished the film and then the [Altmann] case settled and we opened up the end of the film again.
Berge: We were taking a big risk on some of those [restitution cases]. Some of the avenues we went down, nothing ever happened.
Cohen: Nothing panned out.
Berge: So we had to can those. The other issue is that, while we were in the process of optioning the book and developing a treatment, a lot of restitution cases were happening—this was in the late 90's or 2000—some really big cases like a Matisse in a Seattle museum that was being fought over. There was a Degas that was being fought over in the collection of the Chicago Art Institute.
Cohen: And the law was changing.
Berge: So we thought, this is something that happened after Lynn wrote her book. In Russia, for instance, they passed that law nationalizing the stolen loot after Lynn had written her book, so we decided to incorporate that.
Guillén: Cultural patrimony and repatriation issues intrigue me because my training was in Central American archaeology where the looting of archaeological artifacts and their subsequent appearance in private and public collections has been a hot button for some time now. I'm well-steeped in these issues. I had never, however, applied them to stolen art from Europe. For some reason, when I saw European paintings in a museum, I just assumed they belonged there.
Berge: For somebody interested in Central American archaeology, I think it's arguable that the issue of Nazi art restitution, and the cases that have happened, has opened up the issue to broader claims about artistic patrimony from South America, from Greece, Italy. There are a lot of cases that are coming down.
Guillén: Absolutely. The other theme I much admired in your documentary is your treatment of how what is morally heroic within the individual crosses over generations. You have Rose Valland, a true hero during WWII in her efforts to chronicle the trafficking of these art treasures through a private diary. You have Dean Keller, another true hero during WWII attempting to save art treasures from accidental damage through the efforts of the Monuments Men campaign. But then you have someone like David Carroll of the Utah Fine Arts Museum continuing this heroic morality right to the present day by returning stolen objects to their rightful owners. He didn't have to do that but, in his own words, knew it was essential to do so to reinstill a humanity to these events.
Berge: That's right.
Guillén: How have museum officials responded to The Rape of Europa?
Berge: May I first just make a comment about what you've said? It's very interesting that—up until now—there's a whole group of metropolitan national galleries, the big institutions, and whenever they have a case they bring the lawyers out. They have to, because of their fiduciary responsibilities, [deal with] these things very carefully. It's the smaller museums like the Utah Fine Arts Museum and the North Carolina Museum of Art that have been very forthcoming with turning these things back to claimants once the claims have been justified.
Guillén: Does that discrepancy in the track record between the larger institutions and the smaller museums have anything to do with fears of compromising the ability to be eligible for loans from overseas international museums? I know that there was the relatively recent controversy over Egon Schiele's "The Portrait of Wally" at the Museum of Modern Art that actually got David D'Arcy fired from NPR. Does the size of the museum and its in-house policies regarding the foreign loan of art play into how willing they are to accommodate claimants?
Cohen: I think absolutely, right, yeah. It's much more incumbent upon the small guy to make sure that they know that their stuff is legally their's; there's much more risk.
Guillén: In terms of the talking heads then, did Lynn include several of these individuals in her history book? Or have you secured these individuals on your own? I was particularly impressed with Jonathan Petropoulos.
Cohen: He's another author in his own right who has as many books on this subject. It's not the one book of the exhaustive history, but he has a whole book out about the dealers and the historians who made up the team that found the art for Hitler and [Hermann] Goering.
Berge: He's a specialist in Nazi art policy. He's written two very interesting books. He spent 20 years researching this and he teaches at Claremont McKenna. He spent a lot of time talking to old Nazis for his research.
Cohen: Exactly. [Laughing.] Remember his story about the silverware with H.G. on it? He'd be visiting with the peasants or with families in the areas surrounding … he'd look down from eating and they'd be using Goering silverware.
Berge: He told me one story. He was in Austria and there was an area actually near the place where the mine is in the film? Near there was a retirement community for old Nazis. He went there to meet with them and he had a friend along with him once in this one town. He went into the local café, a small restaurant, and it was one of those places … you know how restaurants put pictures of patrons on the walls? Most of them were anonymous people, just locals, and he sat down, the place was full, and his friend goes, "Oh look! There's Herr Somebody"—some Herr Ex-Nazi Guy—and the whole restaurant turned and looked and they felt so uncomfortable they got up and left. Because they knew this was one of their friends.
Guillén: I can speak to that because I lived in Vienna for a month and, during that visit, had a dissonant moment one day when—after receiving some horrible looks from old people on the metro—I realized these were the selfsame folks who cheered Hitler into Vienna! So it's not that far removed.
Cohen: The Austrians were much worse than the Germans in many ways.
Guillén: And you really pick up on that in your interview with the representative from the Austrian National Gallery. [In my best Daffy Duck voice]: He's just despicable.
Guillén: So what are you hoping audiences will walk away with from this documentary? What do you want to motivate audiences to understand or do with regard to these issues?
Cohen: The critical thing at this point is where we are with Iraq and Afghanistan, to a lesser extent. We're desperate for people to see that this was a moment in time in our own history when our government rallied around art and made it a priority and went in there and did the right thing. It is an unprecedented moment in our history that has not been repeated. Unfortunately, we are now in a situation where our troops are in a country [that] is a minefield of archaelogy that we cannot replace and looters are just rampant in the country and we're doing nothing about it. Richard's done quite a lot of research on this. It's not a good situation. The hope would be that we can raise some awareness of what the right thing is to do and, hopefully, try and guide our government to start doing it.
Berge: In general, whether we pick WWII—I mean, this is the setting for this film, WWII—but, I think the big theme is the importance that art has for people. It's the human condition, of recording it in memory, and perpetuating what it means to be human. That tie that people have to their art comes through in the efforts that people made in this history to save it. This could apply to any conflict, to any situation that we need to say to protect art, to save our humanity and Iraq's a good case. When we were just starting to make this film, the Taliban in Aghanistan destroyed those giant Buddhas. You think of [how the Nazis defined] "degenerate art", it's exactly the same thing: power misused, misuing art for control.
Cohen: [To Berge] You made such an interesting point at one of the Q&As about how ironically Saddam Hussein's policy towards looters preserved the art.
Berge: Hussein seems to have shared some traits with Hitler. He wasn't a connoisseur of art like Hitler was but he knew the power of it. He used the Babylonian heritage to buttress his role as the modern Nebuchadrezzar. If he caught looters, he would execute them and that really dampened down the looting during the Hussein era….
Guillén: Or at least careless looting.
Berge: After the first Iraq war, the looting started happening but he clamped down on it and it only happened at night. Then during the Clinton years, during the embargo and all the controls, he booted out all the archaeologists so the looters started to come in and loot at night. Then when the second invasion happened, collectors and dealers—don't know who they are but, probably in England and the United States—had put in orders to looters for specific things they wanted out of museums and out of archaeological sites so looters went in right on the moment of the invasion and started cutting out friezes from old palaces. Now it's a free for all. There's not enough people to be controlling any of these sites.
Guillén: Another point in your documentary that was well-taken—if not horrifying—is the bureaucracy behind the plundering. You've detailed that well, along with the shocking realization that military strategies were predicated upon the potential for the plundering of cultural artifacts.
Cohen: That there would be dealers and art historians that would go in before the invasion [to assess collections].
Guillén: I tend to think of wars as being fought for property defined as territory and not so much property conceived as the fungible currency of cultural artifacts such as paintings or smaller objects of art that were being transported and used—as you were saying, Richard—to bestow validation.
Guillén: The thirst, the hunger, for prestige goods brought in from vanquished cultures I know from my Mesoamerican studies, where you might have—let's say—a Mayan king who somehow through the course of historical events has acquired possession of an Olmec heirloom that strengthens and legitimizes his reign. So, to synopsize here, you're hoping that The Rape of Europa will profile individual acts of moral responsibility and heroism from which we can glean guidance today? Shining examples of people doing the right thing. This is one of the most positive and affirmative documentaries I've seen in a long time.
Cohen: The European efforts are really something to behold. Americans can learn a lot from this film just by watching how the Europeans responded to this crisis. In Italy, in France, bricking things up, sandbagging, moving out entire museums—these weren't just curators; these were truck drivers and receptionists.
Guillén: As an American filmgoer, I think the first time this even entered my consciousness was with the fictional narrative Tea With Mussolini. I suspect the general American public knows very little about the European grass root efforts to protect cultural legacies.
Cohen: Our hope is that they care somewhat. I mean, who knows?
Guillén: Do you feel that the American public has a sense of art as a cultural legacy to be protected?
Cohen: [Shakes her head no.]
Berge: Bonni might disagree with me, but hear me out for a second. First of all, shortly after Pearl Harbor the major museums on the East Coast and West Coast moved their collections inland. The National Gallery's collection went to North Carolina. The San Francisco Museum stuff went to Colorado. San Diego moved their stuff. So there was some consciousness to protect that stuff. Then, these Monuments Men who—before the war—had never seen these works of art that they studied in graduate school, saw them for the first time in the most dire circumstances and they were responsible for them. They came back after the war and I don't think it was a coincidence that, not only was there abstract expressionism, but there's a reason why the art world went from Paris to New York. These men and women came back and created the post-war art establishment. They created these institutions that we now take for granted.
Cohen: [To Berge] I completely agree with you at that time, but I'm talking about Americans today.
Berge: I'm just saying that that legacy continues to today and I think that there's a much greater sensitivity and appreciation of art now than there was after the War. And I think it's because of how their work trickled through.
Cohen: Can you imagine if there were an attack on American soil that the local 7-11 guys and the guys that run the gas station will be packing up crates of paintings?
Berge: No. No, I don't think so.
Guillén: Which leads me to something else, which speaks to the idea that art is somehow for the people. Perhaps in Europe there are established traditions of art being woven into the everyday life of people, but here in the States I suspect art is more privatized and almost class-oriented.
Berge: That's a great point.
Cohen: I think that's absolutely right. When the Maria Altmann case was resolved and the issue came up around what she was going to do with the painting, LACMA (The L.A. County Museum), which is a public institution, were responsible and paid for the insurance to bring the paintings over [from Austria] in exchange for being able to exhibit them; I think it's fair to say in the hope that she would bequeath at least one of the paintings to the museum. That there'd be some consideration. Because if you look at Adele Bloch-Bauer's will, her priority (if you read it) is to insure that these paintings are seen by the public, which is why she wanted them to go to the Vienna National Gallery. Now, she didn't know what was going to happen in Austria but that was the public institution [she had in mind]. A debate arises around how this was handled, right? Because you can't really judge an individual's reaction to getting back something that belonged to her family under these kinds of conditions. However, what is an individual's responsibility to the public, both here in the United States and—I would even argue—in Vienna to having these Klimts seen by the public? We could go on about what we would have hoped to see and then what happened. I preface all this by saying there's no way to judge it, but in an intellectual and rational way I would have wished that the public consideration would have been more in the forefront.
Guillén: For me that was one of the most glaring disconnects in the documentary. To have Maria Altmann say on camera that she wanted her aunt's wishes honored to have these paintings made public or placed in a public institution and then to turn around and sell the painting to a private individual made me pause.
Cohen: [Ronald Lauder] is showing it in the Neue Galerie. It's the other four that we're concerned about.
Guillén: I see. I didn't realize it was being housed in the Neue Galerie.
Berge: It's a complicated issue because there are so many extenuating circumstances.
Cohen: There are a number of heirs and the legal fee; there's a lot going on that needs to be paid back.
Berge: [Maria Altmann] may very well have wished all of these [paintings] to go to a public museum, to go to the L.A. County Museum for all we know, but the single largest shareholder in those paintings was the lawyer who represented her. So how does he get paid? You can't break paintings in half. It does come down to how do you split up the assets? I'm sure there could have been a solution. There was a famous case in the North Carolina Museum of Art of a [Louis] Cranach that was discovered to have been owned by the father or uncle of a couple of Austrian women. When they gave indisputable proof to the museum, the museum said, "Sure, here, take it back." In gratitude for their forthrightness, just like the Utah museum, the sisters said, "Well, look. We thought there would be a fight. Why don't you just keep it? We'll take half the value and you just keep it in North Carolina where it's been for 20 years and everyone loves it." One would hope there would be more solutions like that. The problem with Austria is Maria Altmann was so bitter about the Austrian government fighting her for so long that she wasn't going to leave them there and cut a deal with them.
Cohen: In fact there was a while when they wouldn't even let her in the gallery. She'd come to visit the painting and they wouldn't let her in the gallery.
Guillén: Finally, I know that you did extensive research into this film and you probably left out lots and lots of information. Do you plan to do anything with that material? Is there a coffee table book in the making?
Cohen: The DVD will have extras on it. There's a ton of archival material. Fascinating human interest stories we just weren't able to tell.
Guillén: Well, thank you so much. What a remarkable document. I hope you keep on making documentaries of this caliber.
Berge: Thank you!
Cohen: Thank you for your interest.
Berge: And just to answer you, the DVD, hopefully we're going to have full archival films on there that haven't been seen. The Soviet government made a 25-minute film for the Nuremberg trials that documented their cultural destruction and we want to put that in its entirety. No one's seen that. There's great stuff so I'm glad to hear that you're interested because we're planning to maybe put a two or three DVD set together.
Guillén: That would make it one I would definitely want to own. As it is it's a documentary that one needs to watch several times; there's so much information and so many different stories. You could go off on each individual story.
Berge: I'm so glad. When we were cutting this we were like, "Is it too full of stuff? Is it too dense?" But it seems that people think it's just about right.
Guillén: It's just about right and Joan Allen's narration adds a nice temper.
Berge: She'd never done one before. That was the first time she'd ever narrated. Nice meeting you.
Guillén: Same here.
Cross-published at Twitch.