SXSW 2016: ‘The Liberators’ tells a compelling story of a real-life treasure hunter

A still from Cassie Hay's new documentary, 'The Liberators'

At the end of World War II, hundreds of thousands of precious cultural treasures remained missing. In 1986, German museum officials hired a graduate student to search the National Archives for clues to their missing works. One of the most valuable was the Quedlinburg Treasure. Willi Korte, a career treasure hunter, has spent the past several decades of his life looking for these missing valuables, and now he’s telling his story in his own words in Cassie Hay’s new film, The Liberators.

Before the start of World War II some German families buried gold and silver in a place known only to them in hopes of one day returning to recover those items and rebuild their lives. However, many people found their treasure was taken in their absence, including Willi Korte’s family. This birthed a lifelong interest in the theft during war times, and it lead him to being the professional he is today. When an opportunity arose to in the late 1980s investigate the disappearance of the Quedlinburg Treasure, which included the prized possessions of a historic church and numerous German families, he leapt at the opportunity.

The now famous Quedlinburg Treasure may have been missing, but it was not necessarily in hiding. Soldiers and the descendants of soldiers tried to sell their stolen possessions from time to time, including one person who took their items to Christie’s globally renowned auction house, but even after the items were recognized as stolen, no one attempted to return the works to the German people. Instead, they were returned to the person who presented it.

In 1990, Korte contacted Bill Honan at The New York Times for help. Honan viewed the world of stolen art as something of an underground sensation, but he couldn’t turn down the opportunity to explore this unique subculture further. This lead to a deep dive in the National Archive, which only led to more clues, more interviews and, eventually, to a tiny town in Texas with a population well under 2,000. It was the discovery of the century, but it was only part of the story.

Through numerous interviews, loads of archival footage and newsreels from the last 25 years, Cassie Hay meticulously traces the life and location of the Quedlinburg Treasure from the days before the second World War to the modern day. Norte and Honan are present through as well, each offering a different perspective on the investigation, as well as the importance of the missing art. Korte’s personal connection to similar crimes gives his words an emotional edge that leads you to never question his drive to not only recover the Quedlinburg Treasure, but all the art, artifacts and prized possessions that were stolen from the German people. He understands its value, both to the families who lost the items and the country as a whole, and he finds his life’s purpose in working to heal those near century-old wounds. Meanwhile Honan, who lacks the personal connection found in Korte, emphasizes the importance of the missing art to the world at large. Each missing piece tells a story from our collective history that cannot be told without first being uncovered.

Once the mystery is solved, The Liberators struggles to maintain focus and engagement as the story dives deeper into the motivations behind the theft, as well as an overly long explanation of the story’s aftermath. The sluggish third act spoils an otherwise taught globe-hopping tale, but never to the point of killing interest altogether. By the time you feel the urge to check the runtime you’ll be within 10 minutes of the final frame, but it’s hard to argue a need to watch the remaining scenes.

To say The Liberators is a film about missing art would only be half true. This is a film that explores what we call art, how we place value in art and the lengths people will go to in order to have that art in their lives. It’s also a story about how and why we document our history, as well as the importance of continuing to do so in hopes future generations can understand what their ancestors endured before their time. Cassie Hay delivers on all these fronts with energy to spare, and in the process weaves together a complex global mystery spanning decades and multiple continents in such a way as to make such efforts look easy. Come for the hunt, stay for the filmmaking.