The Liberators, a new documentary by Cassie Hay, has all the stuff of Hollywood in it’s running time. You have Nazis, treasure, robbery, and mystery. The strange thing though, and perhaps why this is a documentary and not a narrative film, is there is no true villain. So the real question is can a film, documentary or not, thrive with no clear bad guy?
The basic premise of The Liberators comes from the period directly after World War II when thousands of pieces of art and cultural treasures went missing, most of this due to the time-honored tradition of wartime marauding. A particularly valuable group of items are known as the Quedlinburg treasure, made of several pieces of religious and historical items. This all leads to an unassuming US soldier from Texas.
If you followed the news of the actual events you know the result of the investigation, which resulted in the successful return of the items from Texas and back to the German people. The Liberators, though, is not as concerned with the literal events as an exploration of human behavior. By delving into the history of the treasures themselves, the history of their transfer of ownership, and their location when our story culminates, Hay successfully lays out an interesting examination of what ownership is and how flexible human nature can become when those definitions are hazy in the slightest.
At the center of this story is the US soldier, Joe T. Meador, the man who perpetrated the transfer of the precious Quedlinburg treasure to his home town of Whitewright Texas. This has to make him the villain right? I mean, you have a man who knowingly took precious items that did not belong to him or his country and sent them to his home and kept it a secret. The way he is portrayed by Hay and her interviewees though, makes him less of a villain and more of a complicated man with an appreciation for art and the preservation of it. His friends and family argue he did not take these for purely materialistic or monetary reasons. No, according to them, he took these items out of a sense of adoration and conservation.
This is really the crux of the movie and what makes it so darn interesting. There is no black and white here, it is shades of gray that emerged from a particularly dark period of our human history. The portrayal of the man as anything but villainous, combined with the context of the larger atrocities of World War II, allows The Liberators to evaluate the tenuousness of our own human ethics. One mistake or one misdeed does not create a villain, and furthermore that misdeed becomes completely reliant of the context of the time. The Liberators really spends its time exploring how our own morality and ethics can shift and alter over time, and what strange creatures that makes us.