If movies are meant to move one, then George Clooney’s dramedy “The Monuments Men” succeeded in making me cry. As an artist and collector of lovely things, I cried when I watched the scenes of thousands of fine works of art being burned. The documentary, “The Rape of Europa,” which is about the actual Monuments Men and their work before and after the war, some that continues even today, satisfied many of the questions left by the fictionalized account.
In reality, treasures were lost and are still being found. “The Rape of Europa” was a project financed by a former oilman from Dallas, Robert Edsel according to a recent article by CBS News. The documentary came out in 2006 and uses archival material as well as interviews with some of the living Monuments Men and the locals who lived through that time as well as art historians who access the results of the ambitious cultural protection project. We also see that other organizations and individuals continue that work. The documentary is better organized and intellectually satisfying but not as emotionally moving as “The Monuments Men.”
“The Monuments Men” does struggle. It means to be both a serious look at a ragtag group of scholars, artists and historians who came together during the World War II to protect and return works of art. For some reason, the number is reduced to seven although “The Rape of Europa” tells us that the ranks at the lowest was 12 and you could have had a different kind of “dirty” dozen, but lucky seven seems more like an magnificent number for samurai and gunslingers defending the common people. That number is too soon cut down to five, after the French man and the Brit are killed.
Certainly historically men did die, but the logic of the movie suffers. The movie is baed on Robert M. Edsel’s book “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.” The book is about the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program of which Edsel researched and wrote about, first in his 2006 “Rescuing Da Vinci” and then in his 2009 “The Monuments Men.” He later donated two albums containing photographs relating to the Monuments Men to the National Archives.
In the movie “The Monuments Men,” the story begins in 1943 with Frank Stokes (George Clooney playing a character based on George L. Stout (1897-1978) , an art conservator who eventually became a museum director at Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts) attempting to persuade President Franklin D. Roosevelt that art treasures are being destroyed and looted. What has already happened in Italy, must not happen in France, Austria, Germany and Poland. Stokes is given permission to form a separate Army unit of seven. These men will go through training and then be dropped behind enemy lines and attempt to prevent the destruction of cultural legacies and find stolen art to return to their owners. In all, seven men are recruited–museum directors, curators, architects and art historians. Along the way they recruit Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas in a role loosely based on Harry L. Ettinger), a young infantry man who was born and raised in Germany and understands enough German to be helpful.
Lt. James Granger (Matt Damon playing a character based on James Rorimer (1905-1966), a museum curator who would eventually become the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) is supposedly fluent in French, but that was mostly learned in Quebec. Rorimer wrote an account of his wartime service, “Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War” in 1950. Like Rorimer, Granger meets a woman, suspected of being a traitor, but who has been documenting the theft of the art. In the movie, the woman is Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) and is based on Rose Valland. Because of his supposed fluency in French, Granger is dropped into France on his own, hoping to contact an old friend of his, a former co-worker of Claire’s who is killed.
The movie places no doubt that Claire is a member of the French Resistance, but we see her imprisoned as a suspected collaborator. The romance that might have blossomed between the married Granger and Claire doesn’t go very far.
Lt. Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) is sent off to Belgium in hopes of saving the statue of Madonna and Child by Michelangelo from being stolen by the Nazis. The British troops have arranged a gentlemanly agreement with the Nazis and don’t believe there’s a need to send extra protection to the Belgian church, but Jeffries goes on his own, against orders. Although he warns the monks for fortify the church, the monks are fooled into opening their doors as an act of charity. Jeffries is shot and killed. He becomes the first Monuments Men casualty, but in doing so he has redeemed himself. In recent years, he’d fallen into disgrace but now he has died a hero, but a hero unable to protect the one treasure he was sent to guard.
Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban whose character is based on Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1996) who wrote “The Quest for the Golden Lamb” in 1945 and would become the general director for the New York City Ballet post-WW II) go to find the Van Eyck altarpiece that has been taken from the Ghent cathedral. Instead, they uncover a farmer and former SS officer who has paintings that used to belong to the Rothschild Collection.
Walter Garfield (John Goodman in a role based on sculptor Walker Hancock (1901-1998)) and Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) stop to admire a bridled horse, but fail to wonder where the rider is and find themselves in the middle of a confrontation between the German and American regular army units with Clermont dying from his wounds.
With their fallen comrades on their minds, the remaining five men work desperately to find the works of art but can’t figure out where they are hidden until finally, they begin looking at old mines. By then the war has ended but the Monuments Men are trying to beat the fleeing German armies who are destroying the works and the Russian Armies who are claiming the works for their own gutted museums.
By the end of the war, Stokes reports to President Harry Truman about continued recovery and the question lingers about the importance of this work. Stokes is certain that preserving the works of art was a worthy cause and the ending personalizes it as a much older Stokes visits the Belgium church to see the Madonna and Child along with many other tourists.
The movie suffers from an attempt to make it a buddy movie and uneasily although almost successfully balancing the humorous and serious parts. There are problems of logic. When we get down to give Americans, they find the art objects and suddenly more people are there helping to clean and catalog.
Watching “The Rape of Europa” you’ll learn that although there was a time when only a dozen men were involved, the ranks actually swelled up to include 200. I’m not clear if that only includes those working in Europe because both movies are only interested in the Monuments Men work in Europe and not in Asia.
The documentary takes its name from Greek mythology. Europa was a Phoenician woman who was abducted by Zeus who has taken the form of a white bull. Europa is enchanted by this tame white bull and foolishly get on its back and the bull runs into the sea and swims far away to the island of Crete. She has three sons fathered by Zeus, including Minos, and later marries a King, Asterios.
Europa gives her name to the continent of Europe and the documentary is about the European treasures and their fate during World War II. Directed by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham and produced by those three along with co-producer Robert M. Edsel, the documentary is based on a 1994 book by Lynn H. Nicholas, “The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War.”
The documentary doesn’t only look at the Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goring’s interest in art but also how art dealers might have also made some questionable deals and how soldiers also participated in the looting. We get to see examples of Hitler’s watercolors (good but not great is how an art historian evaluates them) and hear from someone who got in the art school that turned Hitler down.
The question of art and its value is presented both on a broad scale and on a personal level. We see the Camposanto Monumentale in Pisa and are told that this building was once more famous than the leaning tower of Pisa. People came to see the wonderful frescoes that dated back to the late 1300s–the first applied in 1360 and the last at the end of the 14th century. The building was destroyed in 1944 (27 July). This is one of the examples given in “The Monuments Men.” Reconstruction and conservation continues even now.
The documentary also shows us the destruction left in Russia after the German armies left and evidence of the destruction of the Royal Castle of Warsaw in Poland.
If you’re interested in the real woman behind Cate Blancett’s Claire, you’ll get to see archival material about Rose Valland (1898-1980), who was a member of the French Resistance.
Not only does the restoration of Camposanto continue, but so does the hunt for lost art objects. One is found in an American museum and returned to a surviving family member. A German man works to return artifacts to Jewish families. And the woman, Maria Altmann, whose aunt once posed for a now famous portrait by Gustav Klimt, “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.” Her aunt and her uncle, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer owned four Klimpt paintings. The aunt, Adele, died in 1925. Ferdinand died in 1946, leaving his estate, including the paintings, to a nephew and two nieces.
That brings us to Los Angeles. Altmann was born in Vienna in 1916 and married Fredrick Altmann in 1937. The Altmanns fled Austria for England and eventually ended up in Los Angeles.
Altman, who passed away in 2011, successfully filed a lawsuit in California under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act against Austria. She and the other heirs regained the paintings which were later sold.
While the Hollywood movie reminds us that men lost their lives to preserve art objects and that while some of the destruction resulted from acts of war, other moments of destruction were more vindictive, the documentary reminds us that when we travel we most often choose destinations with sights to see–great works of architecture and art. These pieces of art give a community pride and yet on a personal level, some of the works weren’t monuments lost to a city, but by individuals–priceless treasures with personal histories attached, pieces of family history lost that can’t always be returned.
“The Rape of Europa” is the better, more even movie and after seeing “The Monuments Men” I’d recommend viewing “The Rape of Europa.” If you must see only one, “The Rape of Europa” is the better choice although no one is as handsome as George Clooney or Matt Damon.
“The Rape of Europa” is currently available to stream on Netflix. “The Monuments Men” is currently in theaters.