In The Monuments Men, George Clooney plays Lt. Frank Stokes, organizer of a small unit comprised of American art historians and scholars, as well as one Brit and one Frenchman, tasked with saving as much of the artistic and cultural heritage of Europe as possible, in the knowledge that Hitler had already started making off with huge quantities of art for his own Third Reich museums. And also in the knowledge that if Hitler went down, he would take with him to the grave the treasure house of Western Civilization just out of spite. In the end, maybe most was rescued, though a great deal also was lost.
Perhaps the most precious finds, the great altarpiece at Ghent and the Michelangelo Madonna and Child from Bruges, not to mention a Rembrandt self-portrait in Karlsruhe cited by one character, conveniently turn up in the last minutes of the film amongst the vast truckloads and boxcar loads of art, art, and more art. Yes, liberties have been taken: It's not a documentary, but a well told feel-good story, with appropriate suspense.
The team Lt. Stokes assembles is acted by John Goodman, Bill Murray, Matt Damon, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Dimitri Leonidas in far more than cameo roles. The historical drama of saving 1,000 years of our cultural heritage occupies center-stage, but there's room to show the camaraderie engendered by a common purpose, with humor and considerable humanity. These esthetes were hardly prepared for war (barely passed basic training) but found themselves in the thick of it from Normandy on to V-E Day.
Cate Blanchett plays a French curator and Resistance sympathizer who regards the Allied rescuers with distinct suspicion: Will they cart off the best work to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as war booty? Certainly it is true that much looted art did find its way into private hands and some of that eventually into the collections of major museums around the world. Slowly this issue has come to the surface, although not all instances have been rectified - in many cases because the will to do so isn't there, and in others we simply cannot trace the original owners. And, as shown in the film, not entirely unsympathetically, the Soviets made off with bundles of valuable art as spontaneous, instant "reparations."
Clooney directed the American-German production as well, and co-wrote the script with Grant Heslov, based on a book by Robert Edsel. It will stand as one of his great achievements.
A running theme in Monuments Men is whether or not works of art are worth fighting for, even dying for. Is it worth human life to save a Rembrandt, a Michelangelo? The larger issue is what makes life human, if not the culture we have created, that surrounds us, that informs us, that tells us who we are. If this sounds like a tiresome cliché, I would stand by it in face of the debasement of all life that many régimes promote, and not just the authoritarian or tyrannical ones by any means.
For me this story is personal: My father Victor served in that war, in Europe, and specifically in the Battle of the Bulge during exactly the time depicted in the film. He was in the Counter Intelligence Corps, his principal assignment during the Occupation to poke around, find leading Nazis who had melted into the general population, and turn them over to the authorities for investigation and trial.
Not all treasures got restored to their legitimate owners. This we know. From my Dad, I still have albums full of Third Reich postage stamps that he liberated from post offices wherever he went, which have some collector's value but which were of course useless as soon as the Germans surrendered. For a while our family possessed some Wehrmacht knives and a sword engraved with Nazi slogans and symbols, but at some point years ago these in turn were "liberated" from our home and probably sold off. There was also a ladies' brooch Dad retrieved from some German soldier he was frisking.
Although drenched in a semi-comical bonhomie perhaps necessary for a jaded generation to watch yet another World War II movie, Monuments Men tells a fresh and important story, while showing enough blood and guts, and death, to satisfy those who seek a grittier authenticity. I'm deeply grateful this film was made.
The Monuments Men
Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Cate Blanchett
Directed by George Clooney
Photo: Production shot showing mock-up of the The Last Supper, the late 15th century mural painting by Leonardo da Vinci in Milan. On August 15, 1943, the building was struck by a bomb; protective sandbagging prevented the painting from being struck by bomb splinters.