Film: Hitler versus Picasso and the Others / Hitler contro Picasso e gli altri (2018)

May 6, 2019 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer:  n/a

Extras: n/a

Label:  n/a

Region: n/a

Released:  n/a

Genre:  Documentary / WWII / Holocaust

Synopsis: Provocative examination of art stolen from Jewish families during WWII by the Nazis, and the challenges of repatriating & reuniting stolen works with families and estates.

Special Features:  n/a




The Nazis’ massive theft of art from wealthy and middle class Jewish families is examined in this taut documentary by director Claudio Poli (Gauguin a Tahiti. Il paradiso perduto), with actor Toni Servillo (Il Divo, Gomorrah) serving as host. Poli ultimately links the sophisticated operation to Chancellor Adolf Hitler and Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring – best buddies who soon became staunch rivals in acquiring the best spoils of institutionalized cultural theft.

Poli intercuts numerous interviews with descendants who fought to have their families’ art treasures returned – each worthy of a separate doc, such as Edith Jorisch’s The Heir / L’heriter (2017) – but a key point in the narrative is the childish greed that’s typical of despots, a kind of  ‘I want it, and you can’t have it!’ stance.

The Nazis’ plot to build mass extermination camps may have been confirmed at Wansee in an afternoon, but the theft of art seemed to grow out of the realization that with power and sweeping anti-Semitic policies came plum opportunities to engage in not-so-secret plunder. The mechanics of the machine became more intricate, as official agents forced deals upon original owners to part with some art, and later more art, and eventually all the art, dangling an exit visa for the wealthy to escape torment and death.

These agents used noms de voleurs to cover tracks leading back to upper-tier despots; local vendors to funneled art into their own collections; and as WWII wound down, the Nazis stashed their precious loot in caves and tunnels, with a doomed and soon-to-die Hitler scribbling protocols in his bunker as to who gets what, should the Nazis win the war, lose, or should the country’s entire political regime collapse, and if all was lost, Hitler’s decree pretty much equated ‘Do what whatever you want. The heck do I care now?’

In spite of the postwar fog’s dissipation, of the 600,000 works stolen by the Nazis, 100,000 remain lost – perhaps destroyed, hidden, hanging on the walls of collectors, or stashed in an apartment, as was the case with the Gurlitt Collection, which features rare treasures passed on from former gallery curator / swindler Hildebrand Gurlitt to his crazy, paranoid son. Göring’s own mania for cataloguing and documenting his loot was used against him in a postwar Allied court, and Nazi documents proved similarly helpful in revealing paper trails to some of the key figures involved in the mass theft.

Director Poli and his writers also isolate tragedies and absurdities – one family’s flight to fascist Italy proved life-saving and art-saving, as the Nazis couldn’t touch anyone or any corporation under Il Duce’s umbrella – but it’s the peevish jealousy between the two murderous statesmen that oddly resonates alongside the tragedy; in many ways one can imagine that when Hitler officially decreed he must get first crack at any confiscated art, Göring spent an hour stomping angrily up & down the stolen art-cluttered hallway of his estate.

There’s also the almost laughable attempt by the Nazis to anoint themselves as the logical, organic extensions of old money, upper-class society. As Poli elaborates, the new elite were bougie wannabe painters, mediocre writers, and bombastic architects who built country estates, museums, and had hunting parties to maintain the illusion of classical stability and order.

Poli’s doc moves very fast, and while not overcut or confusing, there’s much to absorb in one sitting, especially given the variety of languages & subtitles, and huge cast of rogues. (Again, separate films can be made of the greedy interlocutors and ersatz cultural merchants within the machine, such as the Third Reich’s first leading architect, Paul Ludwig Troost, who designed Munich’s House of German Art, which opened almost in tandem with the touring Degenerate Art exhibit.)

Hitler versus Picasso and the Others is an Italian production with interviews in English, Italian, French, and German, and there’s a wealth of archival footage and new material, such as the caves where the special U.S. division (Monuments Men) discovered a stash of rare art in old Austrian mining caves.

Amid the greed, tales of cultural espionage, and suspenseful investigations into the network which enables art to flow from approved and ‘degenerate’ exhibits into the hands of leading scoundrels, there’s always a return to the families of victims, and Germany’s lingering challenge to fully address the theft of art & culture.

Hitler versus Picasso and the Others had its Toronto Premiere at the 2019 Toronto Jewish Film Festival.



© 2019 Mark R. Hasan





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