It is April 1945, and the historic town of Lohenfelde is about to be overrun by the Allied Third Army. Huddled in the vaults of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Museum are Heinrich Hoffer and his three colleagues. Their petty rivalries and resentments surface quickly in this claustrophobic confinement as the four prepare themselves for their fate.
Above the ground, picking through the rubble, is Corporal Neal Parry, who wishes he was back in West Virginia studying art. When he finds an exquisite painting in what remains of the museum vaults, he is immediately reconnected with a lost world of beauty and order. It is this small 18th-century oil that is the poignant link between the young American soldier and the four charred corpses he finds at the same time. As the narratives interweave, the story of the painting reveals the hidden story of Herr Hoffer and his three associates - and in doing so uncovers other, darker mysteries.
Heinrich Hoffer is the acting director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum in a small Westphalian town at the close of WWII. Most of the artwork from the building has been removed to a salt mine by Nazi officials, but Heinrich, sensitive to their corruption, holds back one Van Gogh and hides it in the museum's subterranean vaults. As the U.S. air assault builds, Heinrich, abandoning his family, takes shelter with his staff in the vaults and ruminates on his efforts to keep the painting from a particular SS thug. Two days later, Cpl. Neal Parry arrives with the American vanguard and immediately begins searching for plunder, mostly alcohol and women. A commercial artist, Neal discovers the Van Gogh in the vault and sees the painting as his opportunity to return home and set himself up as a genuine artist. Heinrich and Neal's stories unfold in alternating chapters. In spite of considerable repetition and some tedious overworking of Western philosophy, Thorpe (Nineteen Twenty-One) delivers a story rich in the details of European art history and German culture, and the twin protagonists emerge as memorable personalities, unified by a shared sensibility.