Vermeer to eternity: The Monuments Men ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 8, 2014)

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Saviors of the lost art: Clooney & co. in The Monuments Men

My late Uncle Irv was an even-keeled man; kindhearted, easy going, and always up for a good laugh over coffee and a bagel. In all the years I knew him, I have no particular memories of ever seeing him angry or vitriolic. Except for one occasion.

A few years before he passed, he took me aside and showed me his modest collection of personal WW2 memorabilia. I knew that he had flown  bombing missions over Germany as a navigator on a B-17; but I had never pressed him for details. He was showing me the weathered photographs, uniform patches, mission plans and such, when he paused and quietly hissed, “Those fuckin’ Nazis.” It was so out-of-character that it took me aback for a moment. But I got it. He and I lost  many of our mutual relatives in the concentration camps.

And when it comes to war movies, we all “get it” why Nazis are depicted as the ultimate villains. Because they were. Are. Will remain…until the end of recorded time. And you would think by now, Hollywood would have collated and dramatized all the empirical data that has led to a general consensus among decent human beings that the Third Reich was, overall, a terrible idea.

Believe it not, however, there are yet additional historically documented reasons why the Nazis are the ultimate villains (as if the mass genocide, the incursions and the wanton destruction wasn’t enough). Specifically, they looted. And they hoarded. Big time. Especially when it came to Europe’s treasure trove of great art.

Toward the end of the war, thanks to Hitler’s scorched earth directives, countless sculptures and paintings by (then) contemporary artists (like Picasso) were destroyed for not being “collectible” enough (Worst. Art. Critics. Ever.) Luckily, there was a U.S. Cavalry (of sorts) that rode in and saved the day.

The story of this little-known mission to rescue Europe’s plundered art and return it to its rightful owners has been dramatized in a  The Monuments Men. Directed by George Clooney, with a script he adapted with his  Grant Heslov from a non-fiction book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, the story takes place during the waning days of the war as the Allies close in on Germany from all fronts.

Clooney casts himself as museum curator Frank Stokes, assigned by FDR to hand-pick a team of qualified experts to take a crash-course in basic training and then head to the front with two directives: 1) Advise the advancing Allies about known locations containing renowned art so it is not inadvertently destroyed, and 2) Pinpoint the Nazi stashes. The resultant platoon of not-quite-ready-for-combat players is like The Dirty Dozen…with art degrees.

Initially, while I was watching the obligatory “We’re getting the band back together!” montage, I thought “Please, don’t let this be an in-jokey ancillary to the Ocean’s Eleven franchise” (especially when I noted that Matt Damon was on board) but those fears were dissipated as I got pulled into the story. In fact, Clooney and Heslov have fashioned a highly entertaining old-school WW2 adventure yarn, in the tradition of Where Eagles Dare and The Guns of Navarone.

Granted, you’re not going to see this team of art historians and professors scaling cliffs and blowing stuff up real good, but this is nonetheless an absorbing tale of courage and personal sacrifice, topped off by a fine ensemble including Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, and Hugh Bonneville (channeling Jack Hawkins). Look for a cameo by Clooney’s dad Nick. Alexandre Desplat’s rousing score keeps things rolling along.

It’s refreshing to see a WW2 angle that hasn’t been done to death. The only previous example I can think of is John Frankenheimer’s  1964 drama The Train (also set in 1944, it stars Burt Lancaster as a railroad stationmaster recruited by the French Resistance to prevent a trainload of stolen French masterpieces from reaching Germany). It’s also refreshing to see a true rarity these days: an unabashedly patriotic “rah-rah for the good guys” war movie that doesn’t ultimately involve Navy Seals blowing someone’s shit away.

When someone is trying to take over the world (pretty much Hitler’s goal), there are many things at stake. The preservation of innocent lives, of course is paramount, and the preservation of freedom. But the preservation of culture is crucial as well. As Clooney’s character says in the film “[Art] is our history. It is not to be stolen or destroyed. It’s to be held up and admired.” And worth fighting and dying for? I’ll bet if my Uncle Irv was here, he would say, “Yes.”

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