Monuments Men Recounts Battle to Save Art
Based on the true story of the greatest hunt in history, The Monuments Men is an action drama focusing on an unlikely World War II platoon, tasked by FDR with going into Germany to rescue artistic masterpieces from Nazi thieves and returning them to their rightful owners. It would be an impossible mission: with the art trapped behind enemy lines and with the German army under orders to destroy everything as the Reich fell, how could these guys – seven museum directors, curators, architects and art historians, all more familiar with Michelangelo than the M-1 – possibly hope to succeed? But as the Monuments Men, as they were called, found themselves in a race against time to avoid the destruction of 1,000 years of culture, they would risk their lives to protect and defend mankind’s greatest achievements.
In late 1944 and early 1945, as the tide was turning against the Axis, the Nazis were still pillaging Europe’s greatest paintings and sculptures to fill Adolf Hitler’s hoped-for Führer Museum.
Hitler, a frustrated painter, was the most prolific art collector since Napoleon. He acquired his stash of sculptures, paintings and monuments as did Napoleon by conquering nations and claiming the treasure. Some of the art — particularly from antiquity – was intended to fill a museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria; the rest — including modern art and art by Jews — he planned to burn, like his least favorite books. Toward the end of World War II as the Germans were being beat back, Hitler issued his Nero Decree: if he were to die, all the art the Nazis had stolen and hidden must be destroyed.
The Monuments Men, based on the book by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter, is writer/director George Clooney‘s version of a group of middle-aged intellectuals who often had to skirt U.S. Army policy even as they tried to save Europe’s culture.
New York art historian Frank Stokes (Clooney) convinces President Franklin Roosevelt to let him assemble a small team of architects and scholars to rescue whatever culture they can from the Third Reich. In reality, the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section was made up of 365 museum curators, art historians and others from 13 countries, who recaptured and protected the treasures Germany had stolen from invaded nations and its own Jewish citizens. Thanks to the men and women of the MFAA, more than 5 million pieces of artwork were saved, and many of those were returned to their rightful owners or their surviving kin.
Stokes puts together a band of men that includes his pal from New York Metropolitan Museum of Art curator James Granger (Matt Damon); architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), theater impresario Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban); sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman); British professor Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville); French art dealer Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) and German Jew Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonida), a soldier recruited for his ability to drive and speak German.
Once they stumble through basic training, the team disperses to locate missing masterpieces, most crucially Michelangelo’s sculpture Madonna of Bruges and the Ghent altarpiece — a piece Stokes calls the anchor of Christendom.
Granger heads off to Paris to coax intel out of a suspicious Clair Simone (Cate Blanchett), a curator at the Jeu de Paume – France’s repository of Impressionist masterpieces — who secretly kept a record of the Nazi’s transactions. Jeffries makes his way to Bruges, Belgium, to a church where he may find the Michelangelo. While the others set off in pairs across Europe to find Picassos in mineshafts and wrest Bruegels from the barbarians.
How many heels does it get?
Clooney (who co-wrote the film with Grant Heslov) gives The Monuments Men a jaunty bounce and lots of comedy like a light, sophisticated heist movie. Except this isn’t a light subject — people were dying, in the camps and on the front lines. Although The Monuments Men acknowledges this, it never really resonates. There is a lack of nail-biting sequences and a sense of epic scale. There are ultimate sacrifices, intrigue and striking images of bombed-out cities, but there’s danger missing. The movie has its share of startling moments – a visit to the dentist that leads to an Impressionist cache and the revelation of mountains of German gold appropriated from the teeth of exterminated Jews. But rather than juicing each element to blockbuster volume, Clooney delivers it in the tone of a lecture. They all take a backseat to a story just amazing enough to be made for the movies. Rated PG-13. Opens Feb. 7, 2014.
My rating: 4 out of 5 Heels
Editor-in-Chief Mark Heckathorn is a journalist, movie buff and foodie. He oversees DC on Heels editorial operations as well as strategic planning and staff development. Reach him with story ideas or suggestions at dcoheditor (at) gmail (dot) com.