Sunday, February 4, 2007

Director Richard Berge on art theft in Iraq, World War Two films, and "The Rape of Europa"

Based on Lynn Nicholas' award-winning book, The Rape of Europa documents the systematic theft, deliberate destruction, and miraculous survival of Europe's art treasures during the Second World War. The film interweaves the history of Nazi art looting with the dramatic and heroic story of U.S. "Monuments Men" who safeguarded and returned displaced art at the end of the war.

Richard Berge,
Bonni Cohen, and Nicole Newnham directed the film. The following is my interview with Richard Berge.

Your film maintains dramatic tension without melodrama. With WWII films, there is always this risk. Please talk about how you achieved a balance.
I am not sure if there is a subject that has had more movies and documentaries made about it than World War II. The History Channel is practically devoted to the subject. Going into this project, we knew that the biggest challenge would be to make a film that would seem brand new. I think the key was finding historical eyewitnesses/participants who seem absolutely real while telling fantastical tales that you practically can’t invent. And I think what comes through is this deep, heart-felt reverence that they all have for their culture and its artistic artifacts. They make us believe that something really important was at stake. Not that the art was more important than people’s lives, but that both could be precious and worth protecting at the same time.

How did you devise the film's narrative arc?
This was the hardest nut to crack. We had to contend with several countries, both armies and civilians, and then, on top of that, two different sorts of problems: the vast Nazi theft of art versus terrible wartime destruction committed by both sides. We struggled with how much historical background about the war was needed—what do people 60 years later still commonly know? Like all documentaries, it was a big puzzle, and we decided to structure the film roughly chronologically. And then we used Hitler and Goering as recurring figures to unify the whole.

Our editor Josh Peterson deserves great applause for his discipline in keeping this epic story under control and for devising ways to interweave past and present, archival images and original footage, and for keeping the dramatic tension returning to earlier stories with new surprises. We had 200 hours of original footage, another 50+ hours of archival footage, and hundreds of archival photographs that he had to contend with. That takes a lot of patience and concentration.

Also, I want to note that the music plays a really important function of unifying all the diverse narrative threads. The composer Marco d’Ambrosio created an almost Wagnerian score that offers subtle leitmotifs for different characters and countries. As the film jumps around from country to country, the music subtly prepares you for where we are going next, and sometimes, who is the next story about. It is a fabulous score, emotional in all the right ways, that he and his wife Terri arranged to have recorded in Prague by the Prague Philharmonic.

Here’s an interesting side-story about recording in Prague. For two days we recorded these Czech musicians in this Soviet-era sound stage in an old building on a sidestreet in downtown Prague. The patina of the place evoked so much history, but we were surprised by the engineer at the end of the last session. He, of course, had noticed that our film was about the World War II and that it included old Nazi newsreel footage. He told us that the sound stage had a long history: it was always quite busy through the Soviet era recording music for radio and films. But he said the place was originally built during the war by Joseph Goebbels to record soundtracks for Nazi films and newsreels, maybe even the ones that we featured in the film!

How did the project come to be?
Nicole Newnham and Bonni Cohen read the book by Lynn H. Nicolas. Lynn had published it in 1994, and I can safely say that her book was a landmark in the sense that for the first time the vast story of the fate of art in the Third Reich and World War II was brought together into one comprehensive history. Her work opened the door for all of the interest in art restitution that has been generated ever since. Everyone in the field credits her as the pioneer. Anyway, to Nicole and Bonni, the stories that Lynn wrote about were breathtaking. Here you had the highest aspirations of our nature, in the form of art, under threat by the manifestations of the dark side of human nature: genocidal racism and catastrophic warfare on a scale never experienced. Art and war side by side. On top of that, the story was inherently visual—it’s about art after all. I was just coming off of another project when we all decided to move forward on it. That was 1999. It took us five years to raise the money we needed to make the film, and principal photography started in the fall of 2004.

The Rape of Europa was made with three directors. How do you think this is reflected in the film? How did you decide the division of labor?
When you have an epic story that spans seven countries on two continents and six languages, suffice it to say that it’s a lot for a single director to handle. It’s our secret how we divided up the job.

I'd love to know more about art theft and destruction in the Iraq War and how Monuments Men were involved.
My knowledge is limited with regard to the looting that occurred in Iraq in the early days of the invasion. But I do know that experts were convened to advise the Pentagon on what might be expected and how to respond. Unfortunately, contrary to what happened during World War II when President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower on down the ranks responded to advice from cultural experts by creating the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the Allied Military Government, our invading forces in Iraq didn’t really act on the advice offered by this latest committee of experts. We know now that the Baghdad Museum was looted of some 15,000 objects within the first days. Some of these objects are relics of ancient civilizations, including some of the oldest written languages we know of. Utterly irreplaceable. Thankfully, many of the looted items have been recovered. A few days after the invasion, I got a phone call from one of the living Monuments Men from World War II, a lifelong art historian who seemed to be almost in tears. “Why couldn’t they have called up some of us living MFAA vets for our advice!? We protected hundreds of museums from looting during World War II. It’s a rather simple thing to park a tank or two outside of these important cultural buildings.” In response to questions about the looting, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld replied that “stuff happens.” Maybe there was something special about the so-called Greatest Generation because I can’t imagine Roosevelt or Eisenhower giving the same reply as Rumsfeld.

After the screening:
From left to right,
directors Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham; author Lynn Nicholas