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Originally published Friday, February 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"The Rape of Europa" a fascinating documentary

From the pages of a book, the tangle-haired subject of Raphael's "Portrait of a Young Man" smiles enigmatically at the camera; on the regal...

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

"The Rape of Europa," a documentary written and directed by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham. 117 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. SIFF Cinema, through Thursday.

From the pages of a book, the tangle-haired subject of Raphael's "Portrait of a Young Man" smiles enigmatically at the camera; on the regal red wall of a Krakow museum, an ornate gold frame hangs empty. The painting was stolen by the Nazis during World War II, as part of a vast Third Reich strategy of looting Europe's great works of art. Decades later, it has never been found.

"The Rape of Europa," a fascinating, far-reaching documentary by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham, examines the stories of a few of the millions of artworks stolen or destroyed during the war. "Hitler purged art he hated and stole art he coveted," says narrator Joan Allen, explaining that the Führer (himself a mediocre painter rejected from a Vienna art school) made art "collecting" a required pastime for the Nazi elite. Art historians were commissioned to draw up lists of art the Nazis wanted, to be seized when the countries in which the art resided were conquered.

As Hitler's plans became known, museum curators sprang into action — and some of the film's most intriguing footage shows their response. Staff worked overtime to evacuate the Louvre in Paris, packing the artworks (including the Mona Lisa, dispatched in its own temperature-controlled vehicle) and sending them to secret locations in the countryside. A haunting black-and-white image shows the museum's vast, bare hallways, with empty frames leaning against the wall. "Winged Victory of Samothrace," the large, ancient sculpture that has long greeted Louvre visitors at the top of a staircase, had to be laboriously transported down the stairs, by curators terrified by what might happen should a hand or foot slip. In Russia, curators at the Hermitage were able to take advantage of the country's "white nights" by packing art around the clock.

The documentary suffers from squeezing perhaps too many stories, countries and facts into two hours: This is a vast subject, ideally suited to a series of films. It's at its most moving when focusing on the small stories of individual artworks taken from their owners and restored to the families decades later (such as a gorgeous, glittering Gustav Klimt painting, lovingly explored by the camera). As a Utah museum head says in the film, after returning a François Boucher painting to the daughter of a Jewish gallery owner, such acts of belated justice "confer a little humanity back on all of us."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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