NEW YORK — “Do you know the name Rothschild?” To most people with an understanding of history, this question is something of a joke. For mainstream audiences, it needs to be followed up with phrases like “a prominent Jewish family with one of the largest private collections of art.” And in the context of the film “Monuments Men,” when Bob Balaban asks it of an increasingly flop-sweaty former Wehrmacht officer pretending to be a simple farmer, it has the hint of accusation.
It’s a scene that comes midway through George Clooney’s new movie loosely based around the very real Allied army division that put themselves in harm’s way to prevent the theft and destruction of great masterpieces from galleries, museums and private (usually Jewish) collectors. The Monuments Men, as they were called, were somewhat successful, and that’s also a nice way to sum up this film. It’s interesting, it has good scenes and plenty of Golden Age of Hollywood luster, but doesn’t quite come together.
Clooney plays Harvard lecturer/museum curator George Stout. When we meet him he is petitioning Roosevelt to give him resources to go into Europe and help stem the tide of devastation against Europe’s precious artifacts.
I know what you are about to say. Uh, maybe a little less concern about some doodles on parchment and more concern about Auschwitz? Well, the movie addresses this, in roundabout ways. And certainly no one would come away from this film thinking ill of Clooney, who directs and stars in this movie and practically etches a halo above his head as the great savior of humanist ideals. This is real history, albeit something of a footnote and curiosity in the face of the enormity of the war, but it still is remarkable.
The film makes the argument that – yes – it is worth it to put your life on the line for the sake of art. Indeed, two of the Monuments Men actually died, though not quite in the action-packed way it is depicted in the film. (In addition to Balaban, co-stars of the movie include Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin and Hugh Bonneville. I’m taking bets if you wanna guess who makes it out unscathed.)
The film also takes the position, though not too strongly, that altering bombing runs or other operations in an effort to avoid, say, blasting a church with a notable altar piece may be the right thing to do – even if it means keeping soldiers in harm’s way a little bit longer. That’s certainly a topic for ethical debate.
Talk of the camps is pretty much nonexistent in the film – other than Matt Damon trying to return a painting to a Jewish home in Paris, only to realize that “they’ve all gone.”
For much of the film Damon stays on a side mission, working with Cate Blanchett. Blanchett’s character is based on Rose Valland, the curator at the Galerie National du Jeu de Palme – the centralized museum that became the chief repository for stolen art (both “degenerate” art and the Old Masters kind of great interest to the Fuhrer.) Many of these works were taken from Jewish collectors, and while Valland was considered a collaborator by some, she also kept a secret diary recording the ins and outs of all the works which proved indispensable to the Monuments Men’s recovery efforts. (Valland is now considered a hero of the Resistance.)
While the topic of Nazi-looted art continues to rage on, this is, still, a Hollywood movie
While the topic of Nazi-looted art continues to rage on, this is, still, a Hollywood movie. It needs forward momentum, so that means a big third act chase to a salt mine against the Soviet Red Army and their “trophy brigade.” They are after the art, too, but… we don’t trust them. I mean, look at how they scowl. They don’t make elegant speeches from behind a lectern like George Clooney does.
Perhaps I’m sounding flippant, but my main takeaway from “Monuments Men” is that sometimes not every nifty true oddity from history needs to be made into a movie. Clooney has given us two hours of mostly unrelated bits. Some of them are a little bit wacky, like driving up to a castle in the mountains and finding Rodin statues in the courtyard, and some of them are maudlin, like a late night visit to a mobile hospital.
And as a professional film snob, I couldn’t help remembering that Burt Lancaster already starred in a near-flawless picture about rescuing art from the Nazis. It was called “The Train,” from 1964, and it isn’t particularly hard to find it on DVD. I strongly endorse tracking that one down and letting this one get carted away.