Serendipity, said Dutch Nobel laureate Pek van Andel, "is the art of making an unsought finding." In a similar vein, American novelist Lawrence Block described serendipity as what happens when you "look for something, find something else, and realize that what you’ve found is more suited to your needs than what you thought you were looking for."
Both thoughts apply to my experience last night, when I had planned on seeing the latest summer blockbuster, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, at a local cinema. When I went to Fandango to learn the showtimes, however, I saw the name of a film I had not previously encountered: The Rape of Europa.
To my surprise, the movie had nothing to do with cows or gods or crossing the Mediterranean. Instead, it is a documentary based on a 1995 book by Lynn H. Nicholas, and its subject is the systematic pillaging of European art by the Nazis, and attempts over the past six decades to retrieve it and return it to its rightful owners.
I was fortunate, too, in that The Rape of Europa is currently showing in only four cities in the United States and one in Canada: Albany, Calgary, Charlottesville, Richmond, and San Antonio.
Produced in 2006, the film is just now getting commercial distribution. It was screened at a number of film festivals in 2007, and its 2008 schedule indicates several dozen theatres have hosted it so far, with about two dozen more "coming soon." A DVD is scheduled to be released in August.
As for me, a Frostian twist of fate led me down the path less traveled, so that I and five and six other patrons at the Regal Cinema in downtown Charlottesville saw a moving, informative, and instructive film about 20th century history. It tells a story with a definite beginning and middle, with the end still sorting itself out more than 60 years after the end of the Second World War.
Although much of the narrative depends on "talking heads," the filmmakers -- Bonni Cohen, Richard Berge, and Nicole Newnham are all credited as producer/director/writer -- have combed the archives of Europe and the United States for rare film footage, still photographs, and newsreels (both Allied and Axis) that add dramatic heft to the project. In addition, they have isolated a couple of "subplots" that both humanize the topic and bring it up to the present.
One of these subplots features a German man who has made it his purpose in life to return Jewish religious artifacts to the families of Holocaust victims, using detective techniques to match items to names on cemetery headstones, for instance, and traveling across the Atlantic to make sure his finds reach their destination.
In another, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts discovers it has unwittingly acquired a painting by François Boucher, The Young Lovers, that belongs to the family of Paris art dealer Andrew Jean Seligmann. Doing the right thing, it returns the painting to Seligmann's surviving family members in a ceremony in Salt Lake City.
While the film makes reference to the larger atrocities of the Nazis, its focus remains firm on what Hitler wanted to do with art. I would have liked to have seen more attention to the "degenerate art" exhibitions that Hitler sent around Germany, as well as to his mediocre taste in what he considered "appropriate" art -- Hitler ripped a page from Plato in deciding that the government should determine the sort of art the masses could see, and anything that departed from that narrow category had to be destroyed or hidden.
What is most shocking about the Nazi plunder of European art is how systematic it was. The Rape of Europa implies that one of Hitler's motivations in invading various European countries was specifically to steal various works of art to add either to his personal collection, or to display in a vast museum he had planned to build in his hometown of Linz, Austria. He did, in fact, prepare lists of specific paintings, sculpture, and other works that were used by Nazi forces in "collecting" plunder from museums, private galleries, and homes. Specially targeted were Jewish families, whose belongings were carted off from their households after they themselves were sent to the death camps; their furniture, silverware, pottery, bed linens, and much more were put on trains and sent to Germany, where they were distributed to the families of Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe officers and Nazi party officials.
Also shocking, however, is the vindictiveness of the Nazis that led to the wholesale destruction of the treasures of European culture. From the outset of the war, Hitler intended that Polish culture be obliterated. (The story of the Nazis' targeting of the Warsaw Castle is especially touching.) The people of Poland would be eliminated so that their land could be repopulated by Germans; their untermenschen culture would be eliminated so that nobody would remember it. Libraries were burned, churches were looted, and museums were denuded.
As the war began to turn in favor of the Allies, moreover, Hitler ordered the demolition of buildings, bridges, and other immobile icons of local culture. Knowing they were about to lose Florence, for instance, the Nazis simply blew up whole city blocks.
In contrast, when the Allies destroyed something -- such as in the regrettable, tactically mistaken bombing of the monastery at Monte Cassino, for example -- it was done only when military necessity dictated it. When it became apparent that the Florence railway yard had to be demolished, the Allied air forces narrowly targeted it, with the result that there was relatively little collateral damage. (The people of Florence, the film reports, were pleased that the railroad was bombed.)
Yet the Nazis demolished art and architecture for the sheer joy of it. "Totalitarianism" is given a new and deeper meaning by such dastardly acts.
The U.S. Army, on the other hand, assigned art experts -- people like Lincoln Kirstein -- to the front lines, whose job was to identify artistic and architectural valuables and rescue them, if possible, from further damage. These "Monument Men" discovered caches of art works in caverns, salt mines, castles, churches, chateaux, and government buildings. There were literally millions of objects that had been stolen by the Nazis from France, Belgium, Poland, Russia, and other countries. When they were catalogued and returned, they filled hundreds of railroad cars.
Several of these Monument Men, still living, describe their experiences in The Rape of Europa. Others were honored by the people whose art they rescued after their deaths.
More detailed information about The Rape of Europa can be found at the documentary film's official web site. It is a story that deserved to be told, and in this film it is told in a colorful, provocative, and detailed manner -- or at least as detailed as one can be in 117 minutes.
As for me, I am grateful for Fandango's serendipitous listings.