Adolf Hitler was, among other things, an art lover. His competent watercolors failed to get him into art school as a young man, but that disappointment didn’t dim his interest. Long before they invaded Poland or the Netherlands or France, Hitler and his Nazi high command had already compiled lists of thousands and thousands of paintings, sculptures, and other priceless cultural artifacts held by those countries that they planned to track down and take for themselves. As the utterly fascinating 2007 documentary The Rape of Europa illustrates, the Nazis’ obsession with art led to a shock to European culture that reverberates to this day.
Apparently Hitler spent hours drawing up monumental architectural plans for his hometown of Linz, Austria, including designs for an enormous museum to house his art collection (representational art only; modernists such as Picasso were labeled “degenerate” and banned). His collection soon grew as his divisions spread out across the continent, stripping Jewish connoisseurs and dealers of their collections and raiding museums to send train-car-loads of paintings, sculpture, furniture, and more back to Germany. Rape also includes the stories of those who tried to safeguard Europe’s treasures, such as the staff of Paris’ Louvre, which stashed its collection around the French countryside. (One of the film’s many talking heads is the daughter of the husband-and-wife curators who were responsible for hiding the Mona Lisa.) As the Allies began retaking the continent, U.S. forces dispatched special cultural officers—the “monuments men”—to secure and safeguard artifacts in reclaimed territory, but fighting led to wholesale destruction, as in the film’s account of the leveling of the Monte Cassino abbey or the incineration of Pisa’s Camposanto.
Rape uses the almost too familiar dance of archival footage and contemporary material to tell its stories, but the stories themselves are so unbelievable, so devastating, one after another, and so well told that any rote Hitler Channel vibe quickly drops away. Indeed, the film is so packed with juicy storylines—from Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering’s second-only-to-Hitler rapaciousness to the efforts of one contemporary German to return looted silver rimmonim (Torah scroll decorations) to the descendents of their original donors—that one wishes it was a series, not a stand-alone.
If you happen to be looking for a mood lifter after that, another more unusual European cultural treasure was recently rescued from relative obscurity and preserved on DVD in a new two-disc director’s cut edition: Christophe Gans’ 2001 film The Brotherhood of the Wolf. In case you’re not familiar, it is only the finest CGI-assisted French kung-fu monster movie ever made, a mix of sophisticated Gallic sensibility and the visual sizzle and stylistic excess of ’90s Hollywood actioners, resulting in a hybrid that’s a near-ideal blend of good and bad-good.
Based on actual events in 18th-century France (um, okaaay), Brotherhood follows minor noble/man of action Gregoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan, the French Thomas Jane) as he travels from court to rural Gévaudan to stop a mysterious beast that’s been gnawing on the local peasantry. When not tracking the beast, he verbally spars with the unhinged, one-armed noble scion Jean-Francois (the always-welcome Vincent Cassel) and chastely pursues Jean-Francois’ ladylike sister Marianne (Emilie Dequenne) while he shares a bed with witchy prostitute Sylvia (Monica Bellucci, hubba hubba). Oh, and Fronsac faces these adversities with the help of an Indian friend from the Americas, Mani (Mark Dacascos, who—no lie—went on to host Iron Chef America). See, somehow Mani knows kung fu, or some Native American approximation thereof, and so whenever there’s a beatdown needed—say, if some mysteriously mohawked serfs get nasty, or if there’s giant slavering beast on the loose—he goes to work kicking the provincial crap outta folks with FX-amplified roundhouse blows.
Indeed, not only is there a preposterous monster, a preposterous conspiracy, and a preposterous use of the martial arts in a wig-and-high-collar setting, Brotherhood is shot with cutting-edge millennial flavor, from isolated raindrops a la Saving Private Ryan to slow-mo ass-kicking Matrix style. In this way, Brotherhood was dated before it even hit screens for its first run, but its straight-faced rampant lunacy (there isn’t room to discuss the French version of the family from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the telescoping sword) retains its nutty appeal. This is surely not how Europeans would like their cultural history to remembered, but remember it you will.