A Monument at Last

There’s an apocryphal story that I wish were true. It has someone suggesting to Winston Churchill during WWII that funding for the arts should be cut as part of the war effort. Churchill takes a puff on his cigar and glowers at the man who made the suggestion. (It’s apocryphal, so I can embellish it any way I want.) Then he delivers one of his trademark zingers: “Then what are we fighting for?”

Apocryphal, yes, but if Churchill had that question asked of him, it would be exactly how he’d have responded. As both a historian and a talented artist himself, Churchill understood the value of culture. The question is mirrored in the new film from George Clooney, The Monuments Men. Clooney’s character, Frank Stokes, is briefing FDR while seeking to send a team to Europe to find and protect historic buildings, monuments, and art. “If you destroy an entire people’s culture, it’s as if they never existed,” he tells the president, who approves the mission.

The Nazis planned to take all the great art of Europe and use it to fill huge museums in Germany as part of the Thousand Year Reich – at least with what wasn’t skimmed off by the party leaders, in particular Goering. At the beginning of the film we see Goering come to Paris to meet with Viktor Stahl (Justus von Dohnanyi), the SS officer in charge of looting museums, churches and private collections of masterpieces of painting and sculpture. Also present is Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a French museum curator who has been pressed into service by Stahl.

An interesting side note: Justus von Dohnanyi is the grand-nephew of Hans von Dohnanyi, a jurist and member of the Abwehr (German military intelligence) during WWII, where he was a major player in the resistance movement. Dohnanyi was married to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s sister, and helped Bonhoeffer with his work against Hitler and the Reich. He was arrested by the Nazis at the same time as Bonhoeffer, and was executed shortly before the end of the war.

Stokes drafts six art specialists to help him: James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) and Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville). Along with Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), a young GI driver who’d escaped from the Nazis just before the war, they set about carrying out their mission.

Clooney and his production partner Grant Heslov based the script on the non-fiction book of the same name by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter. This is another of the untold stories of WWII, like the Ultra Secret and the Navajo code talkers, that was almost lost in the passage of time. There were actually about three hundred men (and women) involved in the work of saving and recovering Europe’s cultural heritage from the Nazi plunderers. The real work was done after the war as they catalogued and returned over five million pieces of art. By the time the Monuments Men returned to the US in the mid-1950s, the country had already fought another war, and the work they did was pretty much ignored and forgotten.

This is not a war story like Saving Private Ryan (or the current Lone Survivor). The tone of the picture is seriocomic, with a heavy emphasis on the comic. Part of it is the fish-out-of-water nature of the men who participated, most of whom were too old for the Army. As is pointed out in the film, the young art experts who could do the work were already fighting in the war. While the film has its poignant moments – there were casualties among the Monuments Men – there were bizarre incidents that dance between both natures. Midway through the film, there’s a scene involving Murray and Balaban where a trip to a dentist leads to a breakthrough in recovering the looted art. Strangely enough, this is pretty much what happened in real life.

The cast is exceptional, and Director Clooney allows each of his costars to shine brightly. While this may not be a “great” movie, it’s an entertaining one, and an education for the audience. It does pose a serious question as to whether art is worth the cost of a man’s life. While some may debate this, actual artists would give a whole-hearted “Yes” as their answer. Art is the closest mankind will come to immortality in this world.

Another interesting side note: Last November, a treasure trove of 1400 pieces of art was found in the home of the son of a Nazi involved in the systematic looting during WWII. It included works by Matisse, Picasso and Chagall, and was valued at a billion euros. Just today, February 11, it was reported that a further 60 paintings were recovered from the man’s second home.

The work started by the Monuments Men still continues.

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