'The Liberators': SXSW Review

Courtesy of SXSW
An imperfect recap of a jaw-dropping wartime theft's aftermath.

Meet the man who rescued priceless German artifacts from the family of a greedy American soldier.

The story of how a self-trained treasure hunter tracked thousand-year-old German relics to an unassuming home in small-town Texas, Cassie Hay's The Liberators has a whale of a daydream at its core: What would you do if your dead uncle had stolen decorative items worth hundreds of millions of dollars from the Nazis and left them in your family's care? This debut film doesn't quite milk maximum drama out that question or the unlikely eureka moments leading to the treasure's retrieval. But its tale is complex enough to hold history- and art-buffs' interest on small screens, and aspects may intrigue screenwriters looking for feature-adaptation ideas.

Though looting from Nazis sounds like an almost noble crime, U.S. Army Lieutenant Joe Tom Meador was, of course, taking things rightly owned by an entire culture, things that would have been returned to civilian care when the war was over. But Meador not only snuck many loads of goods out of the caves where they were guarded, he actually wrote letters home urging relatives to be careful with the packages he sent them. They "could possibly be very very valuable," he wrote. After returning home, he decorated his home with them; a gay man in a conservative part of the world, he sometimes "used these objects as sexual lures" when at gay bars in nearby Dallas.

Meador's loot included a collection of medieval art known as the Quedlinburg Treasures — beautiful glass flasks, jewel-encrusted illuminated manuscripts, and so on. Decades after the war, Willi Korte was hired to look for leads in this and other high-profile thefts; he soon joined forces with New York Times reporter Bill Honan. In reams of old military records, Korte happened to spot a two-line reference to the discovery of a cave used to store art; though his investigation was hindered by the fact that the site was in East Germany, he eventually followed a trail from there to the U.S., then to Denison, Texas.

Hay interviews plenty of locals who recall their excitement when priceless art works turned up in their town, and details a bit of the legal maneuvering required to get access to them. But the story feels like it ends before the one-hour mark, with Korte's relief at being able to document and photograph his finds. What follows, though interesting in a crime-and-punishment sort of way — relatives of the now-dead Meador actually got to sell the loot back to Germany for millions — plays like a slightly sluggish epilogue and refuses to press interviewees who go easy on the man whose thefts necessitated such a search.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)
Production company: Death and Taxes LLC
Director-producer: Cassie Hay
Executive producer: David Bryant
Director of photography: Serena Kuo
Editor: Cary Lin
Composer: Curtis Heath

Not rated, 75 minutes