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The Monuments Men

George Clooney’s Art Commandos

Feb. 10, 2014
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The Nazis were responsible for genocide and a brutal war of conquest. They were also among the world’s greatest art thieves, stripping museums and private holdings of the paintings and sculpture desired by Germany’s leaders. And several of the top Nazis had enormous appetites for art.

The Monuments Men isn’t the first time the subject has been turned into a screenplay. Movie buffs will remember Burt Lancaster’s The Train, which depicted Germany’s wholesale looting of Paris’ art museums as a rolling wartime action adventure. Drawn from the Allied campaign to rescue the art stolen by the Nazis, The Monuments Men was directed by George Clooney as if afraid no one would be interested in a realistic account of this great treasure hunt, or else half wanting to transform his soldier aesthetes into “Band of Goofballs” or the “Hogan’s Heroes” of art history. The film’s release was pushed back as Clooney and crew tried to find the right tone. They got it all wrong, producing a queasy cocktail of sentimentality and seriousness, daft comedy and espionage caper.

Clooney heads an all-star cast often in roles “based,” however loosely, on real GIs and Allies involved in the effort to rescue Europe’s cultural heritage from the clutches of the Nazis. Matt Damon brings his shy, crooked smile to a character drawn from a real Metropolitan Museum of Art curator and Bob Balaban plays a hapless soldier modeled after an actual arts critic-Renaissance man. Clooney turns on charisma as the culture squad’s commander; Bill Murray and John Goodman seem the most engaged with the film’s mostly misconceived moments of humor.

Spoiler alert: The Monuments Men gets the ending more or less right, especially the recovery by the Western Allies of troves of stolen art hidden in German salt and copper mines in competition with the more heavy-handed Soviets. Like a conqueror of old—like Hitler himself—Stalin was determined to cart home wagonloads of trophies from the land of his defeated enemy. The U.S. and its British and French partners were concerned with returning the cultural goods to their owners.

Back in the real world, the story still hasn’t ended. Millions of stolen objects were restored after World War II but millions more remained missing. Last year, the son of a Nazi-era art dealer was implicated in a long-running scheme to covertly sell unrecovered art to collectors. While The Monuments Men tells its version in glib Hollywood style, it manages to communicate an important point: Saving art in wartime might not be as important as saving lives, but it’s nothing to laugh it. One of The Monument Mens’ problems is that sometimes it seems to do just that.


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