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Art as Vulnerable Victim of Ugly Times

November 13, 2008 By:
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Neil Friedman treasures his trove of masterpiece movies, gems distributed by his Menemsha Films with a sense of doing so for art's sake.

But it is art forsaken and foraged that puts the focus on what may be his most-successful venture to date: "The Rape of Europa," the compelling documented continental drift of morals dredged up by the Nazis in their barbaric slash-and-burn art-jacking of World War II, in which no stone was left unturned or museum unlooted in a pilgrimage of pillage that turned Europe's masterpieces into wall hangings for a former wallpaper-hanger named Hitler.

The documentary, just released on DVD -- written, produced and directed by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham -- makes book on the best-selling tome of the same name by author Lynn H. Nicholas, in which Hitler and his henchmen are described making history a museum piece of their own doing, framing Jewish art owners with illicit crimes, while snatching up their collections to color in their own cultural abyss.

Meanwhile, co-producer Robert M. Edsel has provided a bookend to the Nicholas work; his Rescuing Da Vinci is the film's companion tome.

Art amid the artless and heartless: It is guessed and estimated that the Nazis worked on a percentage basis -- pilfering nearly one-fifth of all of Europe's artwork, only some of which has been recovered and restored to the rightful owners.

Friedman owns up to the importance of "Europa" in his own oeuvre: "We've done a long line of Jewish films -- many on the Holocaust," he reveals of Menemsha.

"But, as you get older, you gravitate toward the things that are important to you."

And, as the 55-year-old film fan -- whose distribution/sales firm firmed up a film record of repping five straight Oscar-contenders, including "Son of the Bride" -- grooms his company for another hit, he himself concedes he's taking it personally.

"I majored in ethnicity in college; I was always interested in the idea of cultural groups, which, as a Jewish American, has an unending fascination for me. It's sort of like peeling an onion: Each layer becomes more interesting."

In that case, "Europa" is a Vidalia of vindication, a postmodern presentation peeled back to reveal the big picture as it details stories of the art world's Jewish "survivors" -- those works of beauty rescued from the grime and gargoyle world of the Nazis and restored to their owners' loving hands.

All in Focus

Frame by frame, the film puts it all in focus, with the fulcrum fixed on the Gustav Klimt case, in which five works by the famous member of the Vienna Art Nouveau School were classified as stolen, eventually returned from a Viennese gallery to Maria Altmann, from whose Jewish ancestors the Klimt collection was taken.

He was much taken with Nicholas' book, and now Friedman is delighted to take the opportunity to present history as a palette retrofitted for film.

"This film was originally intended to air on TV," says the onetime co-chairman of the independent features department of the William Morris Agency.

As an agent of education, the movie was meant to go big-screen. "The material was so new, I knew it could work theatrically."

What it had was the "whoa!" factor, a wonderful startling quality, says Friedman, that has its own brush with greatness, as it details the saga of the Monuments Men, everyday American soldiers who waged their own postwar battle to assure the art was returned. "It's so unbelievable, you can't make up these stories," says the filmmaker.

The subject's storied history led Friedman to the book. "I am a fairly literate guy, but I had never read the book," until after the film was made.

But that was just the beginning of "The End." "We had 'locked' the film -- and then this decision came out," says Friedman of the Klimt case.

Code blue to resuscitate a film just concluded? "We made a coda," a new ending, and, he says, for once, here is a Holocaust saga as harbinger for the heaven, and not the hell, in man.

"I am delighted," he adds of the treasure chest of restored loss that is this Holocaust story, "to have a movie with a happy ending."

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