Paint Misbehaving: Art thieves Hitler and Göring go to the canvas.

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As the best-organized looters in history, the Nazis assembled lists of artworks they coveted in countries such as Poland and France before they even invaded them. The most prestigious stuff was destined for a proposed museum in Linz, Hitler’s hometown, which he planned to transform into the grand city of European culture. But the stolen art went in many directions, including into the vast private collection of butcher and art connoisseur Hermann Göring. Based on Lynn H. Nicholas’ 1995 book of the same title, The Rape of Europa tells many overlapping stories, moving nimbly from auction houses to death camps. The filmmakers introduce the niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer, whose portrait is one of several Gustav Klimt paintings the family battled to retrieve from an Austrian government that was quite willing to keep some Nazi booty. They watch as a small painting stolen in Paris is located in a Utah museum, and they recall the “monuments men,” U.S. cultural warriors assigned to preserve as many noteworthy European artifacts as possible. Given the millions of innocents who could not be delivered from the devastation of World War II, policies designed to rescue art treasures may seem frivolous. Indeed, the conflict between saving art and winning the war was constant and complicated, as is illustrated by the battle of Monte Cassino: U.S. forces took heavy casualties while trying to conquer the venerable Italian hilltop monastery, and eventually an aerial bombardment was ordered. But the destruction of the complex was a strategic failure that killed only civilians, not German soldiers. The movie reveals that the painstaking restoration of buildings and frescoes in Italy continues. Narrated by actress Joan Allen, The Rape of Europa is a traditional talking-heads documentary, designed ultimately for TV. But it’s worth seeing on the large screen, both for its sweep and for its unblinking treatment of the Nazi worldview. In its depiction of the war in Poland and the Soviet Union, the film reveals how Hitler’s certainty that some art was noble and the rest “degenerate” is intimately connected to his conviction that some peoples should survive and others disappear.