The Monuments Men: Raiders of the lost art
‘The Monuments Men’ sheds light on a forgotten piece of history, but it lacks the weight it needs to be a work of art.
Not many people know Adolf Hitler was an artist. Or at least he fancied himself as one … unfortunately no one else did and he may have channeled that disappointment at not being taken seriously as an artist into other endeavors. Who knows what the world would have been like had little Adolf been allowed to pursue his dreams.
Of course, we all know what did happen as Hitler tried to turn Europe into his own personal playground, but not many know that his obsession with art continued while he was waging war. As his troops stormed through Italy and France, they also collected art wherever they could find it — museums, churches, people’s homes. The majority of the fine art by the old masters was being kept for display in the proposed Fuhrer Museum which was to be built in Hitler’s home town. When it became known that these original masterworks (paintings and sculptures alike) were disappearing, a team of art historians from the US, England and France banded together to save and return the art.
In the new movie The Monuments Men, George Clooney is Frank Stokes, the leader of the ragtag group who agree to put themselves in harm’s way to save these things that help define society. (The movie is based on a book about the real men, but the characters in the film are fictional versions of them.) Stokes convinces FDR that this is a vital mission and he knows the men who can carry it out, even if the army refuses to cooperate.
The Monuments Men land in Normandy and have to make their way into Germany to try to find where the art is being hidden, which isn’t easy, but with a little help from a French woman, Claire (Cate Blanchett), and deciphering symbols on a map, they are able to track down the locations. But can they get to them before Hitler’s Nero Decree (everything is destroyed if Hitler is killed or Germany loses the war) goes into effect?
I have really mixed feeling about The Monuments Men. I really, really wanted to love this movie. Clooney has put together a magnificent cast — Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin — and revealed an almost obscure moment of history to a wider audience. But there’s just something missing, something that should draw you into the film and into the mission. The story is surprisingly lightweight with little emotional attachment to any of the characters, particularly those who are killed in action (and it’s almost a bad cliché as to who dies). We really don’t get to know any of the men deeply enough to be upset when one dies.
There is, however, one moving moment when Bill Murray’s character gets a recording from home with his daughter singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” what I consider to be one of the saddest Christmas songs ever (and if you’ve ever seen Meet Me in St. Louis you’ll know why). This one moment packs a ton of emotion — and reminds us that the film was supposed to be released in December — and the movie could have used a whole lot more of it. As it is, the men never really seem to be in danger (one death is purely wrong place, wrong time), making their mission seem less urgent than it really is. The movie’s one scene of real tension comes when Claire’s boss, Viktor Stahl, discovers she’s been keeping records of where all the stolen art is going. This was the only time I actually feared someone would lose their life.
On the plus side, the film is put together well, looks beautiful and has a rousing, patriotic score by Alexandre Desplat. The movie just needed a stronger, deeper script … or possibly less editing. It almost seems as if the film had been trimmed too much to make it run under two hours, jettisoning some real character development and tension. The Monuments Men is certainly an admirable effort to make a lost part of history known today, but perhaps reading the true account of the story will be more gripping than the movie (and should be the basis of a fact-based documentary). As it stands, The Monuments Men is a noble effort that suffers in the end from being just a bit too shallow.
As an aside, Hitler also declared a large and varied collection of art as “degenerate” (mostly religious and abstract/modern pieces), decreeing that they should never been seen again (they were in a moving exhibit which visited DC back in the 90s). Unfortunately, this is never mentioned in the movie.