Art is the signature of civilisation. For centuries conquering armies have appropriated not just land, but the culture and history of the people they’ve displaced. During WWII, the Nazis perpetrated perhaps the greatest arts heist in history.
Adolf Hitler was a great art lover and frustrated artist who had twice been rejected by the prestigious Vienna School of Fine Arts. Not content with building his ‘Thousand-Year Reich’, he dreamt of transforming his adopted hometown into a modern day metropolis. The centerpiece was to be the Fuhrermuseum, which would house and display the world’s finest art. To this end the Nazis systematically looted museums, galleries and private collections – acquiring more than five million pieces of Europe’s greatest art works. Based on the true story of the greatest treasure hunt in history, The Monuments Men focuses on seven over-the-hill, out-of-shape museum directors, artists, architects, curators, and art historians who went to the front lines to rescue artistic masterpieces from these Nazi thieves.
The result is a rather nostalgic war film that owes more to the likes of Kelly’s Heroes than Inglourious Basterds. The Nazis are all thoroughly despicable. The Brits are silly toffs. The French are arrogant and rude. The American GIs are good, clean-cut boys who are there to single-handedly win the war.
The ensemble cast of George Clooney (who also directed and co-wrote) Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Dimitri Leonidas, Jean Dujardin and John Goodman do a decent job of bringing to life a script that’s heavy on sentiment and light on action. It’s especially refreshing to see mature actors playing their age. “Wars are fought by 18-year-olds,” Clooney commented during a recent interview. “Once you get to the John Goodmans and the Bob Balabans and the George Clooneys, you know – these guys are not getting drafted.”
However the plaudits undoubtedly belong to Cate Blanchett whose beautifully buttoned-down performance as Clare Simone – all repressed passions and neat tweeds – fairly steals the film. Simone was inspired by the real life Rose Valland who was an overseer at the Jeu de Paume, which adjoins the Louvre. During the war, Hermann Göring used the Jeu de Paume as his personal shopping mall and Valland risked her life tracking and recording the movements of stolen art treasures. Blanchett’s portrayal of a woman desperate to remain ‘invisible’ while gripped by the anguish of seeing great works stolen on a daily basis is masterful.
The film itself occasionally stutters and stalls. There’s some heavy-weight sermonizing delivered ‘to camera’ by Clooney himself which can seem at odds with the film’s lighter moments. Putting Bill Murray in a film, doesn’t make it a comedy. Like The Great Escape and Bridge On the River Kwai, Monuments Men has a dark heart. The laughs are built on gallows humour and death, when it comes, is casual and painfully unheroic. Along with the Michelangelos, DaVincis, Rembrandts, Van Eycks and Vermeers that the team recover are also crates of gold fillings pulled from the mouths of millions of murdered Jews.
Monuments Men is a movie about people who are willing to sacrifice everything to save what is the very best of us; of humanity. Is art worth dying for? The Monuments Men thought so.