A Bavarian castle, a salt mine in the Austrian Alps and a French jail were all once temporary repositories for some of the greatest collections of art in the world.
That occurred during World War II, when the Nazis stashed looted art there while systematically plundering, as well as destroying, staggering amounts of artwork from Jewish residences and museums throughout Europe. Their failed quest, and the committed efforts to save and recover the priceless art, is the subject of the powerful and thorough documentary "The Rape of Europa."
The film is based on the best seller of the same name by Lynn H. Nicholas. Narrated by Joan Allen, it concludes the Buffalo International Jewish Film Festival at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
The film begins by recounting how Hitler blamed his art-school rejection on Jews., and how his purge of modern art from a state museum, to be replaced by fascist art glorifying Third Reich ideology, foreshadowed what was to come.
Hitler would employ thousands to confiscate art from France to Poland, while destroying Jewish and Slavic art with the same fervor he employed in orchestrating the Holocaust. In one scene, railroad cars taking Jews to concentration camps are shown followed by cars packed with stolen artworks.
Hitler's plan was to display the stolen Germanic, French and Italian artwork in a museum complex he dreamed of building in his hometown of Linz, Austria. But his grand scheme was countered by those who risked much to keep art out of the Nazis' clutches.
They included museum curators and the Allies' Monuments Men, whose job was to track down stolen artwork and minimize damage from advancing armies.
Their heroism, of course, could not explain how so many could participate in something so horrible.
"All of this accumulated beauty had been stolen by the most murderous thieves that ever existed on the surface of the earth," said Leonard Malamac, one of several Monuments Men interviewed.
"How they could retain the niceties of appreciating great art and be exterminating millions of people in concentration camps I couldn't understand then, and I can't understand today."
THE RAPE OF EUROPA
3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)
STARRING: Narrated by Joan Allen
DIRECTOR: Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham
RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes
RATING: Not rated, but PG equivalent for disturbing images.
THE LOWDOWN: A documentary on the plundering, destruction and recovery of European works of art during World War II. In English and five other languages, with English subtitles.