Pop quiz: You find out your father/brother/uncle/neighbor stole a bunch of priceless religious artifacts from an abbey in Nazi Germany. What do you do?
a) Return them to the abbey so that they can be appreciated by all and preserved by professionals.
b) Keep them in a private family vault so that you can look at them and remember your loved one.
c) Sell them to the highest bidder.
d) Burn them as artifacts of an evil regime and the culture that enabled it.
At the end of World War II a soldier ransacks a church in occupied territories, taking as plunder of war a handful of priceless treasures. Decades later, a scholar combs through military records and archives in order to piece together the location of these cultural heirlooms, arguing they should be returned to people from whom they were stolen.
The twist? The soldier was an American. The treasures he stole were from Nazi Germany.
The Liberators (★★★), which premiered at SXSW, is at its best when its talking heads are exploiting that twist to explore what is wrong with plundering art. We are so conditioned by stories such as Monuments Men and The Woman in Gold to equate plundering with Nazism that often forget it is a practice older than Western civilization itself.
We also live in a society where the same actions that meet with howls of protests when practices by our enemies and adversaries are too often met with indifferent shrugs when practiced by those in our political, cultural, or social tribes.
The artifacts in question here were part of the Quedlinburg Treasure. The most valuable was probably an illuminated manuscript of the Gospel of Samuhel, dating back to the 1500s. Why would someone want such items? The prestige of owning a unique artifact? As a reminder of the conquest of a hated enemy? Simple greed? (Although the film is somewhat opaque on that matter, the implication is that the soldier was more interested in the jewels on the cover of the book than the contents of it.)
Because the questions The Liberators explores towards its end are more complex and interesting than those at the beginning, the film does feel a bit back loaded, and it takes awhile to get going. If you do find it, stick with it. The questions about what we should do once such thefts are uncovered is quite a bit more interesting than the particulars of how this one was revealed.
From a filmcraft standpoint, it is worth mentioning that Cassie Bryant’s direction is surprisingly non-judgmental. One trend in documentaries the last few years has been for directors to more consciously (or blatantly) reveal their own biases. This can be done by breaking down the invisible wall between subject and observer so that the documentarian becomes part of the story (think My Kid Could Pain That). It can also be done through more obvious editing choices that comment implicitly on the words of the subject even if they don’t verbally rebut them (think The Queen of Versailles).
The Liberators doesn’t really do either. If the arguments against the thief (and his estate) seem stronger than their justifications, that may be because I was predisposed to them, not because the film stacks the deck. A stronger film might have situated this case a little bit better into a broader cultural and political canvass. Did the United States government act substantively different than other governments once it became aware of the theft? (I think yes, but here again, the film is opaque.) Were the mechanisms for returning the art to its original custodians/owners the same as in other cases? Apparently. I would have liked another 15-20 minutes on the rationale behind “buying” back stolen art rather than seizing it so that I could better understand the broader issues.
That quibble aside, The Liberators was a fascinating and illuminating look at the ways in which shifting cultural views of what is moral (or even tolerable) force us to confront the sins of our fathers, even–especially–the ones they did not themselves think of as such.