Monuments Men pulls its punches

The Monuments Men is a historical film about a squad of men brought together during World War II to rescue stolen art from the Nazis. It stars a number of excellent veteran actors, including George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, and Jean Dujardin, the Academy Award-winning star of The Artist. The acting is therefore quite good (naturally), and the plot of the movie is an interesting, little-known bit of true life, but the movie falls short of its full potential. Spoiler alert, this piece contains facts critical to the movie.

In 1945, the great art of Western Europe was in sore need of rescue. There was, of course, the collateral damage caused by both Axis and Allied bombing raids on cities like Milan, Bremen and Cologne, but this was not the primary concern of the so-called “Monuments Men”, the art-rescue squad led by Frank Stokes (George Clooney). Hitler, himself an artist, envisioned building a massive “Fuhrer Museum”, in which would be housed the greatest of European artworks, and, to this end, he stole vast quantities of paintings and sculpture from Paris and other occupied lands. When it became clear that the Axis powers were not going to win the war, he issued an order that would ensure that, if he could not have the art, no one would. Called the “Nero Decree” after the Roman dictator who burned his city to the ground, the document instructed the SS to destroy the stolen art rather than let it fall into Allied hands. Renaissance masterpieces were torched, sculptures smashed (at least, the film portrays it this way; in reality, the Nero directive was never carried out). To make matters worse, the Soviet troops had orders to steal whatever they could – including art – for Stalin, as “compensation” for their efforts in the conflict. Stokes’ team, on the other hand, wanted to return the art to the collectors, churches, and museums from which it was stolen. They had to beat the Germans and the Russians alike if they were to accomplish this task.

Other reviewers have observed that The Monuments Men is unsure just what sort of movie it wants to be. This is true. It has elements of a war movie, a buddy picture, and, to a lesser extent, a heist film. The transitions from comical to serious can be jarring, but this is not a major problem with the film. Most war movies use this trope: a moment of jovial camaraderie is interrupted with tragedy or disaster, so as to drive home the point that there is no safe harbor, no security in a war zone. The “buddy movie” feeling comes from the interactions between the individual men, most notably Goodman and Dujardin, as they roam about Europe in search of stolen goods. The “heist film” angle is strongest at the beginning, when the team is being introduced, but it quickly fizzles out, which makes the story seem a little disjointed. There is even a stillborn hint of romance between Damon and Blanchett, but thankfully this is minor.

The main problem with the movie runs far deeper than a bit of narrative laziness. Rather, it concerns the basic premise of the film, and the all-important question of why the characters – and, by extension, the audience – should care. After all, these events take place during the waning months of World War II. People are being slaughtered by the millions. Why on earth does it matter if a couple of paintings by Van Gogh or Michaelangelo are among the casualties? The film tries to answer the question in multiple ways – some of them conflicting – and the overall effect is unsatisfactory. In essence, three answers are given.First, the cultural heritage of Europe is at stake, and this is something more timeless and enduring than a human life. Second, the majority of these artworks were stolen from Jewish collectors, and by returning them to the few still alive, the Monuments Men are playing a small but important part in restoring these people’s humanity to them. And lastly, two of the team members lose their lives trying to fulfill the mission, and Stokes and company need it to succeed for their sakes, so that their deaths will not have been in vain.

The first reason is that which Stokes gives for why the Monuments Men should be established in the first place. Stokes argues at one point that people can rebuild homes and lives, but not culture or history. He also says at several points, however, that the lives of his men are more important than the paintings they are working to recover. Another character, a military officer, refuses to go out of his way to protect a statue, as his priority is with his men. Unless the message is that American lives are more valuable than art but French and Belgian lives are not, these remarks contradict the original argument.
As for the third reason, the film places too much emphasis on it. Wanting to complete a task that one’s friend died trying to accomplish is a worthy goal, and it gives a good motivation for Stokes to be so invested in finding one statue in particular – but it does not explain why the mission happened at all. Never is the audience told why the dead man should have risked his life over this statue – not explicitly, at least. The man himself waxes poetic over the statue, and he speaks about how this mission allows him to regain his honor, which he lost due to severe alcoholism. But again, this gives him a rationale for caring without giving the viewer one.

The root of the answer lies with the second reason. Many hints in the film point to it. For instance, in one stockpile of stolen goods are two barrels filled with gold: one holds wedding rings, the other gold teeth and fillings; both represent the victims of the Nazi gas chambers. Another stockpile holds furniture and household items piled to the ceiling, taken from the homes of Jews being shipped to death camps. “What is all of this?” James Granger (Matt Damon) asks, awed. Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) responds, “People’s lives.”

Finally, in the most effective scene in the film, Granger brings a portrait back to the home of its owner, a dirty apartment long-abandoned and stripped of furniture and decoration. As he hangs it on the wall, Simone asks him why. After all, she observes, the person who lived here is long gone, likely among the nameless dead at Dachau or Auschwitz. Granger replies that his job is to return stolen art, and this seems like a good place to start. Paired with multiple references to the Jewish collectors who once owned the majority of the paintings and statuary in the Nazi stockpiles, the message seems to be that this is why people should care about this mission. This is what makes rescuing art worth risking one’s life.

Sadly, the film drops the ball here. It could have driven the point home hard – by showing, for instance, one of these collectors being robbed, or his home ransacked as he himself is shipped off to his death. It could have highlighted the sick injustice that a Nazi middleman, overweight and comfortable in his home in the country, has covered his walls with Rembrandt and medieval masterpieces taken from the once-wealthy Rothschild family of Austria, while the family itself was forced to flee or be killed, and much of their vast art collection was not returned until the 1990s. Instead, The Monuments Men dances around the topic. It talks about the Jews without actually showing any. It hints at the connection between the concentration camps and the Nazi art theft but never makes it blatant, and the subtlety costs the movie most of its possible impact. This could have been a hard-hitting and heroic story about the restoration of people’s heritage to them, but instead it ends up just being an enjoyable but forgettable peek at an obscure bit of history.

On a final, positive note, the cinematography in the movie cleverly sets great art as the background in many shots. A meeting in a New York bar has a beautiful Works’ Progress mural as its backdrop, while cathedrals soar over blasted streets. So at least, in a movie about the true value of aesthetics, the people working on it took the time to add some nice aesthetic touches of their own.

3 out of 5 stars.
This movie is rated PG-13 because of minor war violence, minor language, and one or two disturbing things like buckets of gold teeth taken from corpses and horribly racist Nazis.

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