SXSW film review: “The Liberators”

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Joe Tom Meador was a 29-year-old U.S. Army lieutenant in 1945 when he stole a trove of priceless medieval church art while stationed in Quedlinburg, Germany, just after World War II. 1454286187434-1

A one-time art teacher from the tiny North Texas town of Whitewright, Meador clearly knew what he was stealing.

And once he mailed his packages back to Whitewright, the treasures — including a 1000-year-old sumptuously illustrated version of the Four Gospels lettered with gold ink and encased with a jewel-encrusted gold and silver binding — became Meador’s private stash, a semi-secret collection that no one in Whitewright seemed to recognize as valuable or acknowledge as stolen property.

That is, until his heirs tried to sell some of the valuables after Meador’s death from cancer in 1980.

Debuting at SXSW, Austin filmmaker Cassie Hay’s first full-length documentary, The Liberators, digs into Meador’s tale and the decades-long search for the treasure and twisted legal battle that ensued between Meador’s heirs and the German authorities.

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The Samuhel Gospel, a ninth-century illuminated Latin manuscript, part of the Quedlinburg Treasure.

Whipping along at 75 mintues, Hay’s film packs the complex story into to a string of talking-head interviews, mainly with Willi Korte, aka “the art world’s Sherlock Holmes,” a German-born historian and lawyer whose made a career searching for and returning stolen artistic property to its rightful owners.

In his quest to find the Quedlinburg Treasure, Korte made a somewhat unusual alliance with New York Times culture report William Honan, the two sharing information. Eventurally the pair traveled to the windswept and dwindling town of Whiteworth to suss out more clues before the Times broke the story in 1990.  (Korte and Honan each wrote books on the Quedlingburg hunt)

Hay places Korte and Honan at the center of her film. But she captures interviews with Meador’s niece and nephew, who inherited his estate; a few of Meador’s friends from the gay community and some observational commentary flashy Texas criminal defense attorney Dick DeGuerin.

Robert Edsel — co-founder of The Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, which was the inspiration for the George Clooney movie — pops up at the end

The Liberators is essentially another filmic — and short — version of an already-told tale of art theft, cultural crime and tricky business of war reparations.

Though Hay taps myriad topics in her telling (her forays into the social psychology of small town Texas feel the most fresh) one wishes for a little more depth in some arenas that first-time filmmaker budgets obviously didn’t allow for.


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