Bringing a radically new perspective to World War II and the Holocaust, this fast-paced docu, based on Lynn Nicholas' bestseller about the fate of European art both under the Nazis and afterward, casts the Third Reich in a wholly different light.

Bringing a radically new perspective to World War II and the Holocaust, this fast-paced docu, based on Lynn Nicholas’ bestseller about the fate of European art both under the Nazis and afterward, casts the Third Reich in a wholly different light. Curiously, by narrowing focus, filmmakers widen the absurdity and horror of a war waged, at least in part, for a mon-strously inflated private agenda. This mesmerizing morality play, rich in rare archival footage and complete with heroic Allied saviors, merits a full-fledged arthouse run before reaching larger PBS and cable auds.

Like Menno Meyjes’ semi-conjectural biopic “Max,” docu perceives Hitler’s failure as an artist as central to the Fuhrer’s gestalt. Relying on actual documents rather than fictionalized epiphanies, film-makers Richard Berge, Nicole Newn-ham and Bonni Cohen make a com-pelling case for the theory, reframing WWII in terms of objets d’art “selected” for Nazi acquisi-tion or extinction.

Under Hitler’s reign, art-collecting measured personal worth. Extensive footage of Hermann Goering’s swag-gering aesthetic oneupmanship, culminating in before-and-after shots of the hunting lodge he converted into a palatial art gallery provides a bleakly comic mirror to Hitler’s blueprint for a colossal Greco-German Fuhrermuseum.

Hitler, it seems, set about conquer-ing the world armed with a cultural wishlist, his obsession with art often dictating his military itinerary. His “final solution” for so-called inferior or degenerate artwork was nearly as far-ranging as his program for human genocide (the shadow of the death camps implicitly looming large throughout the film).

In this context, real or projected atrocities that other docus highlight are here enumerated by narrator Joan Allen with a wry matter-of-factness that renders them more shocking. German newsreel clips recount Hitler’s confiscation of various masterpieces (including Da Vinci’s “Lady With an Ermine”) from Kra-kow museums and simultaneous blitzing of “inferior” indigenous art and massive shelling of monuments. His plan to exterminate the entire Polish people and colonize their land, on the other hand, is presented almost parenthetically.

Similarly, shots of vast warehouses of Jewish possessions seem a mere extension of the wholesale pillaging — until men carrying worn mattresses and dented teapots remind viewers that Hitler not only collected the valuables of Jews he slaughtered, but sought to wipe out the slightest vestiges of their existence.

To the German campaign of arro-gance, greed and bloodlust, the filmmakers counterpose the Allies’ dedicated art preservers. Extraordi-nary footage details the evacuation of the Louvre (a crated Winged Victory descending the great staircase miracu-lously unharmed), the artwork spir-ited away in carts just ahead of exploding bombs. The Hermitage is likewise emptied out, its curators hiding in freezing underground passages below while, above, remain-ing Russian artwork is tossed into the snow in disdain for all things Slavic.

Pic pays particular homage to the Allies’ Monuments Men (several of whom appear on camera), whose job was to minimize the damage done by advancing armies and track down stolen works of art.

Moving seamlessly from past to present, Cohen, Berge and Newnham document the aftershocks some 50 years later, tracing stolen art pieces still in litigation, foremost among them Klimt’s gold-flecked portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. The painting’s eventual sale for $135 million adds yet another layer to film’s myriad disconnects between the fates of millions and the whims of a few.

Tech credits are first-rate.

The Rape of Europa

Production

An Actual Films presentation in association with Agon Arts & Entertainment/Oregon Public Broadcasting of an Actual Films production. (International sales: Menemsha Films, Los Angeles.) Produced by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, Nicole Newnham. Executive producer, Cohen. Co-producer, Robert M. Edsel. Directed, written by Richard Berge, Nicole Newnham, Bonni Cohen, based on the book by Lynn H. Nicholas.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W archival, HD), Jon Shenk; editor, Josh Peterson, music, Marco D'Ambrosio; sound (Dolby SR/SRD), James LeBrecht. Reviewed at New York Jewish Film Festival, January 17, 2007. (Also in Palm Springs Film Festival.) Running time: 117 MIN.

With

Narrator: Joan Allen. (English, French, German, Polish, Russian dialogue)

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