The Monuments Men

March 15, 2014
Matt Damon & George Clooney in 'The Monuments Men' (2014)
Matt Damon & George Clooney in 'The Monuments Men' (2014)

When you see German soldiers with flame throwers destroying works of art in one of the most striking scenes from The Monuments Men, remember that it never actually happened. The Raphael picture we see going up in flames is still listed as “missing” today, not officially torched. One might think the Nazis were bad enough but Hollywood always needs to take matters that little bit further.

The Nazis made bonfires of modernist pictures they found “degenerate”, but even some of the worst war criminals could not bring themselves to destroy works by artists such as Van Eyck, Michelangelo or Rembrandt. Nevertheless Hitler invited such a catastrophe with his Nero Degree, which called for the destruction of everything of value to the enemy once it became obvious the war was lost. The fanatical Gautleiter, August Eigruber, believed the looted art stored in salt mines in the Austrian village of Altaussee should also be destroyed, but It was his own comrades who stopped the process.

Watching The Monuments Men, directed and co-scripted by George Clooney, who also plays the role of group leader, Frank Stokes, one is constantly wondering what is true and what has been invented. Having now read the book by Robert M.Edsell and Brett Witter I can report that Clooney has taken some severe liberties with the historical record. He is not in the same class as Quentin Tarantino, whose Inglourious Basterds (2009) was positively offensive in its rewriting of World War 2, but there is the same persistent jauntiness with a subject that may not seem especially cheerful.

One may give Clooney the benefit of the doubt and assume he was not trying to make a popular cash-in, but an old-fashioned, patriotic war flick, in which the allies are spotless heroes and the Nazis are rats. The giveaway is the score by the versatile Alexandre Desplat, which is all marching music and synchronised whistling – a parodic echo of the great war films of the past.

There was an offbeat aspect to the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives division of the United States army: it was made up of art historians, curators, conservators and artists. Their task was to identify sites of historical and cultural value and try to prevent unnecessary damage. They were also tasked with finding works of art stolen by the Nazis which had to be returned to the rightful owners. There has never been anything like the MFAA before or since, although the looting of the Baghdad museum in 2003 suggests the Americans may have abandoned the idea too soon.

As the book reveals, the MFAA had only partial success in dissuading the army from its destructive ways. The Monuments Men couldn’t save the Abbey of Monte Cassino, or the antiquities of St. Lo, while most of Germany seemed to be flattened by the time they arrived. The damage was virtually indescribable, along with the lists of artworks lost forever.

Where this small group had more success was in tracking down works the Nazis had plundered and stashed. The thefts were organised and methodical, on an outlandish scale. The great private art collections of Paris, which were mainly owned by Jewish collectors and art dealers, were quickly seized. Works from museums and cathedrals, such as Michelango’s Madonna in Bruges, were purloined under the fiction of “safe-keeping”. Almost nothing was safe from the Nazis’ greed. They didn’t stop at paintings and sculpture, they took furniture, tapestries, jewellery, books, silverware, archives, artefacts, and anything else that caught their fancy.

Hitler and Göring were the two greatest thieves, with the most important works going into their private collections. For the Führer, everything was destined for a glorious museum in his home town of Linz, which would bring together the art treasures of Europe.

The stories of the real Monuments Men are extraordinary enough but Clooney has added a little drama and suspense to the mix. Edsell and Witter’s book actually invites such a treatment, being written in a brassy ‘best-seller’ style that soon becomes irritating. George Stout, the basis of Clooney’s Frank Stokes, is described as “dapper” no fewer than nine times. James Rorimer, the model for Matt Damon’s James Granger, is repeatedly called a “bulldog”. We are told on several occasions that Rose Valland, who is Cate Blanchett’s Claire Simon, was “no wilting flower”.

It seems the authors drew inspiration from Hitler’s observation: “The crowd will succeed in remembering only the simplest concepts reapeated a thousand times.” It’s a lesson that has been well learnt by Australia’s political leaders.

If one can stop thinking about history, and simply surrender to the action and entertainment, The Monuments Men, with its all-star cast, is a diverting experience. It alerts us to a part of the war effort which has been overlooked and undervalued. It makes a case for preservation of cultual heritage that is forever being forgotten by the military hierarchy. It even raises a big ethical question as to whether any work of art, no matter how great, is worth a human life.

It’s a shame these worthy achievements are tied into a film that feels like a cross between The Dirty Dozen and Hogan’s Heroes. There may be a comforting familiarity about the Hollywood clichés that Clooney employs, but it’s hard not to feel that in the midst of this cheesy confection an excellent documentary has gone begging.

The Monuments Men
USA, rated M
118 mins
Directed by George Clooney; written by George Clooney & Grant Heslov, based on the book by Robert Edsel & Brett Witter; starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Dmitri Leonidas

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 15 March, 2014.