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The Monuments Men

2,560 words

monumentsGerman translation here

When the great masterpieces of American cinema are taken back to Beijing as war booty, The Monuments Men will be in no danger. When I heard that it was directed by, co-authored by, and starred aging bimbo George Clooney, that was all I really needed to know. 

The previews were “too much information”: I learned that the film also stars Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, and Hugh Bonneville (better known as the Earl of Grantham), which means (1) too many cooks, (2) lack of self-confidence in the script, and (3) somewhere in this desert of screen time and top billing there must be the compensation of a tiny waterhole of prestige or numinous virtue where these pachyderm-sized egos can slake their narcissism.

And sure enough, The Monuments Men is about art and takes place during The Holocaust (surely it’s safe now to drop the pretense of calling it WWII), which means that, in the United States, it has a natural audience of, say, ten million National Public Radio listeners, six million of them being Jews.

That’s a pretty small audience for a $70 million dollar film, especially with stiff competition from real art house films and the Holocaust movie of the month. With overwhelmingly negative reviews, The Monuments Men is looking like a box office bomb.

The Monuments Men is about a group of Allied soldiers who were tasked with protecting monuments and preserving and recovering art treasures in Western Europe during World War II. In reality, there were about 400 such individuals, but for the sake of dramatic simplification, this movie deals only with seven Monuments Men, plus one French woman played by Cate Blanchett, who collaborated with the Nazis but who assures us that she was secretly working for the résistance—like 40 million other Frenchmen. Every waiter who spat in a German’s food, apparently, was a hero of the résistance.

Even this limited cast, however, proves too much for director/screenwriter Clooney. The plot of The Monuments Men is a confusing mess of multiple story-lines and temporal leaps that will baffle most moviegoers. Quentin Tarantino can pull off such plots, but Clooney can’t.

The plot would not be problematic if it were anchored in well-realized characters, which the movie lacks. Instead, The Monuments Men feels like an old-fashioned guy movie in which a team of cursorily characterized stereotypes comes together to pull off a caper. Such movies work, however, only if the plot is simple and straightforward, and only if the team consists of easily intelligible stereotypes: Midwest farm boy, wop, Appalachian hillbilly, streetwise urban hustler, sassy or sagacious Negro, privileged New England preppy, Southern aristocrat, cowboy, New York Jew, etc.

You can’t pull it off with a team consisting of choreographers, sculptors, museum curators, architects, British aesthetes, and art historians. None of these are “types,” even to NPR listeners. To most Americans, they might as well be Martians. Or they could be flaming homosexuals. I guess “He’s a choreographer type” does bring an image to mind. But no, the Monuments Men all seem to be hetero family guys. In short, characters like these need some . . . characterization.

The Monuments Men could also have been saved if it had appropriate dramatic conflict, tension, and forward drive, but it lacks those as well. World War II certainly does not lack conflict, but Clooney just coasts on the mystique of the war. He treats it as delicious nostalgia. He seems to think that all he needs to do to add gravitas is mention The Holocaust from time to time.

But all the elements of real dramatic conflict are present here. At the beginning of the film, Clooney’s character briefs President Roosevelt on the necessity of their mission by pointing out that Allied bombs had destroyed the Abbey of Monte Cassino near Rome and nearly obliterated Leonardo’s The Last Supper in Milan (three walls and the roof of the room were destroyed; The Last Supper was on the only remaining wall). This alone establishes sufficient motive for the Germans evacuating great works of art and hiding them in mine shafts, but conventional minds don’t go there.

The American philistine response is that war is hell, people die and things get broken, and is it really worth spending additional lives to preserve art works and buildings? This issue comes up again and again, but nothing dramatic is made of it. With a few high-minded clichés, Clooney manages to turn philistine America into the protectors of European culture, and I was the only one in the theater who found this risible. (One wonders what a French director would have done with this material.)

Of course, if the Allies really cared about European culture, the British and the French would not have started World War II, and the British and the Americans would not have fire-bombed Dresden and countless other German cities and towns, and the Western Allies would not have saved Soviet Russia and handed over half of Europe to Stalin. Ironically, though, Communism turned out to be less destructive of European high culture than liberal democracy.

In the Second World War, it was only the Axis powers, especially Germany, that evinced any concern for the long-term survival of European culture and European man. If Germany had won the war—or, better yet, if the war could have been avoided—European civilization would not be threatened today by below-replacement birthrates, fast-breeding non-white immigrants, and creeping Islamization in the European heartland.

The Monuments Men could also have been saved if Clooney just had a clear sense of what kind of movie he was making, but even this is lacking. The tone of this movie is inappropriately light, sentimental, and comic (though seldom funny). There are numerous plot digressions that serve no real purpose: a scene in which “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” plays as a young soldier dies, a scene in which two Monuments Men share cigarettes with a scared young German soldier, a scene in which Matt Damon steps on a land-mine (played for laughs), etc., etc. There is also an attempted seduction (Cate Blanchett trying to tempt married family man Matt Damon) that reminded me of the romantic subplot in The Caine Mutiny, which is my paradigm of a morally and dramatically compromised movie. A self-confident director with a story to tell doesn’t need these manipulative and pointless digressions.

Naturally, The Monuments Men is filled with propaganda, but it is handled in a curiously slipshod manner. At the beginning, we are told that this movie is “Based on a True Story,” which means that it is false, of course. It is also based on a lot of false stories, which means that it falsifies them as well. One doesn’t expect fairness to the Nazis, of course, but I did expect some piety towards the massive body of anti-Nazi propaganda and myths that have been building steadily since the 1920s. But apparently, piety towards myths does not mean preserving them unchanged, but retelling them, embroidering them, intensifying them, without any concern for plausibility or consistency.

During the Second World War, the Germans acquired a large number of works of art. These fall into four categories: (1) works they bought outright; (2) works they forced their owners to sell; (3) works that were taken as war booty; and (4) works that were taken, as it were, into protective custody to prevent their destruction from Allied bombs.

The Monuments Men repeatedly intones the high-minded principle that the great works of European art rightfully belong to mankind. But if that is the case, then (1) private collections are a violation of the rights of mankind, and (2) why does it matter where such works are displayed, as long as they are visible to the public?

Jewish collectors and art dealers, for instance, were forced to sell their artworks rather than emigrate with them. But many countries to this day forbid private citizens to emigrate with works of art that are considered elements of their cultural patrimony, and many countries today actively pursue the repatriation of such works as well.

Yet The Monuments Men deplores German forced sales of private collections as “theft,” even though (1) the works were bought not stolen, and (2) the best works were reserved by Hitler for a huge museum in Linz, a museum that would be open to the public. Göring too intended his collections to be given to the public upon his death. Since it does not really matter where the great works of European art are displayed, as long as they are displayed and cared for properly, Hitler’s “theft” of Jewish private collections has to be seen as, on balance, a good thing if we really believe that the great works of European art belong to mankind.

The same argument applies to war booty. If the great works of art belong to mankind, then what difference does it make if they become booty of war and are moved from one private collection to another, or from one public collection to another? The only net loss to mankind is if works are moved from public to private collections. But if Hitler and the Germans had their way, the net flow would have been overwhelmingly in the opposite direction, from private to public, which is a net boon for mankind. The Monuments Men obfuscates this issue, on the one hand mentioning Hitler’s plans for a giant museum in Linz but on the other hand prating about how “one man” should not have too many of the world’s art treasures (unless he is a Rothschild, of course).

Most of the great works of art have well-documented histories or provenances. These histories include many “thefts” in times of war. For instance, Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, which features prominently in the movie, has been stolen in part or whole at least seven times. After the French Revolution, the altarpiece was moved to Paris where it was displayed in the Louvre. In 1815, after the fall of Napoleon, it was returned to Ghent. But the very year it was returned, two panels of the altarpiece were pawned by the Diocese of Ghent for a paltry sum and never redeemed. Eventually they were purchased by the King of Prussia for a vast sum of money and exhibited to the public in the Gemäldegalerie Berlin. In the meantime, in 1822, the remaining panels were damaged by fire. Two other panels were sent to Brussels. During the First World War, the remaining panels of the altarpiece were taken to Berlin. But after the war, due to an express provision in the Treaty of Versailles, the entire altarpiece (including the panels purchased by the King of Prussia) were returned to Ghent, where the whole altarpiece was exhibited until 1934, when one panel was stolen. (It has never been recovered.) During the Second World War, Hitler ordered the altarpiece to be seized for his planned museum in Linz. Then, after the war, the American Monuments Men stole it from the Russians, since the altarpiece and thousands of other works of art were stored in a salt mine which fell in the Russian zone of occupation.

Now, if the Ghent Altarpiece is part of the cultural heritage of mankind, shouldn’t the only real considerations be (1) that it be displayed to mankind and (2) that it be properly cared for? And, given the record of the Diocese of Ghent, which pawned part of the altarpiece, allowed the bulk of it to be damaged by fire, and allowed one panel to be stolen, mankind might well have found a more caring trustee in Adolf Hitler.

Of course many art works are destroyed during war, which is also a loss to mankind. But this would happen much more often if art works were not valued. But their high value also makes them prime targets for conversion into war booty. Because Hitler, Göring, and other leaders of the Third Reich put such a high premium on art and culture—and not just German art and culture, but European art and culture as a whole—during the final months of the Third Reich they devoted many scarce and desperately-needed resources to preserving works of art from Allied bombing. If only the Germans had been able to save more, and the Allies had been willing to destroy less.

The Monuments Men obfuscates this fact with a vile and deliberate lie: that Hitler had ordered the destruction of great works of art to prevent them from falling into Allied hands. First, we are told of Hitler’s “Nero Decree,” also known as his “Scorched Earth” order: according to the movie, if Hitler died, he wanted to take Germany with him, including all of the art treasures he had stolen. As I understand it, the Nero Decree plan did not include cultural treasures but instead infrastructure that the Allied invaders might find useful.

Moreover, as far as I know, history first heard about this order only in 1969, when Albert Speer’s memoirs were published. It would be interesting to know if there is any independent evidence of this decree, or if Speer and his ghost writer Joachim Fest just made it up. In the movie, though, signed copies of the decree are brandished by the Monuments Men as if the Führer himself had faxed them over.

Furthermore, the day before his suicide, Hitler willed his art collections to the German nation, which hardly makes sense if he planned to destroy them.

Second, a short, ugly, sickly-looking SS officer (you know the type) is shown in one of Hitler’s mine shaft repositories in Heilbronn ordering the contents reduced to ashes with flamethrowers (as if this would not kill the villains themselves from smoke inhalation). One of the incinerated paintings is Raphael’s “Portrait of a Young Man,” a work which disappeared in Silesia near the end of the war. The Polish government claims to know that the painting survived the war, but whatever its fate, it was not reduced to ashes in a mine shaft due to Hitler’s Nero Decree.

When the Monuments Men search the repository, they find a carbonized frame with a metal plate engraved “Pablo Picasso.” The Frenchwoman also claims that works by Picasso and Klee were burned by the Germans in Paris. This seems highly unlikely. When the Germans removed “decadent art” from their museums, they sold it to fools abroad. And if they wanted to rid the world of Picassos, they could have gone directly to the source, since Picasso himself remained in Paris during the German Occupation, alive and well and painting away.

The Monuments Men is a deeply dishonest and dumb film, but I have saved the worst for last: after the war, Clooney interrogates the weedy SS pyromaniac, who also ran “one of those camps” for lulz in his spare time. Clooney paints a beatific vision of his return to New York where he can buy a toasted onion bagel from Moe Dalitz or Hyman Diamond or some other stereotypically Jewish deli owner and read in the New York Times about this German’s execution for war crimes. It is a perfect image of a smug WASP airhead who thinks he runs America and is magnanimously sticking up for the “poor Jews,” paying them all the while to poison his body and his mind. One wonders if Clooney himself actually thinks this way, or if he is just playing dumb and sucking up to America’s real rulers.


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  1. Petronius
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 2:24 am | Permalink

    The destruction of so much art and architecture surely was an act of barbarism on behalf of the Allied troops – but in all fairness it should be said that their primary targets were civilians and not cultural goods.

    • Sandy
      Posted February 12, 2014 at 3:13 am | Permalink

      It’s anecdotal but a WW2 pilot that I knew told me that that there was a small financial reward for the crew of the bomber that came back with a photo of Cologne Cathedral in its bomb sight. To their credit none ever did.

  2. Petronius
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 2:25 am | Permalink

    *Sarcasm off*, in case of anyone not noticing.

  3. Stronza
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 3:07 am | Permalink
  4. WG
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Excellent review. I’ll be giving this one a miss.

    Yesterday I was in my local Barnes & Noble store looking at recent history/military titles. The preponderance of books devoted to Jewish/Israeli/Holocau$t topics I found amusing, and I kept thinking: is there really an audience for this sort of thing? Are people still clamoring for Jewish sob stories?

    • noreaster
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      Many years ago I spent a lot of time at the Library of Congress. Every week they would have culture talks on some obscure subject. A majority and at times most(75-90%) of the talks involved Jewish subjects such as “Jewish harmonicas in pre war jazz” or “Ancient Jewish bedposts in the Crimea” or something like that. The more obscure the better but they had to contain the word ‘Jewish’ in the title.
      They are indeed ‘chosen’ as the saying goes, chosen by themselves. Of all the ethnic nations of the world they are the one with their hand up sayjng, ‘Look at me’ ‘Look at me.’
      Ok we are looking.

  5. Jim
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Another Jew-financed “cultural project” to convince the goyim that the Nazis were anti-civilization. Yes, those wonderful preservers of Western artistic accomplishments- the Allies- who fire-bombed Dresden.

    The irony is that white audiences who see this tripe will drive home past sexually suggestive billboards, run-down apartment buildings housing drug-addled addicts, littered highways, “homeless” beggars on street corners, and all the miasma of modern America, glowing with warmth about how their country saved Western Civilization.

  6. Gordo
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    The BBC is pushing this crap daily. Yet another reason to avoid it.

  7. me
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    I sure wish they’d make pro-German movies. Almost all movies we see about WW2 are very anti-German. The closest “pro-German” WW2 movie is Wolfgang Petersen’s movie “Das Boot” – about a German submarine surviving the blockade under water – only to have many sailors from that surviving submarine die at the end from the gunfire from the Allies planes. It was a good “pro-German” WW2 movie, but I didn’t appreciate the ending.

  8. Norwegian
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of theft: The swedish-jewish banker and communist sympathizer Olof Aschberg helped finance the Bolsheviks in Russia, and for this he received 500 tons of gold, stolen from the Tsar – that he melted down so it could no longer be identified. He also received several hundred pieces of russian-orthodox icons – stolen art that is. Can’t wait till they make the film about this art thief!

    As if this wasn’t enough: Olof is the great grandfather of one Robert Aschberg, a well known Swedish “anti-racist” and media bully; famous for his vicious attacks on suspected “fascists” and thought criminals in Sweden.

  9. Posted February 12, 2014 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    A friend went to see this film Sunday night, and told me about it on Monday. We live in a suburban town with only a small Jewish population. The entire theater was packed. She was one of the last to take a seat. She said the film was so-so, and regretted paying so much to see it. I asked her why she went. She said: “Because it had George Clooney.” She opined that the audience was full of middle aged White women who drug their husbands to the theater so the ladies could stare at Clooney for a couple of hours. If she is correct, the Nazis, the Holocaust, and Art were a sideshow.

    • White Valkyrie
      Posted February 13, 2014 at 2:35 am | Permalink

      I hate that crowd- the middle aged yoga mom crowd. They act all liberated and intelligent and then scream whenever their favorite actor comes onscreen (check out some of Val Kilmer’s fans on facebook to see a real example of a bunch of cows the feminists want to unleash on us).

      They distract us by using celebrities; celebrities are supposed to be for looking up to, not for distraction. Movies are for entertainment and don’t HAVE to have a political message but they also shouldn’t tell lies.

  10. Charles Krafft
    Posted February 13, 2014 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    Apparently, the Monuments Men found the bodies of Fredrick the Great, Kaiser Wilhelm and Paul Von Hindenburg stored in one of the mines they also discovered looted art in and made off with them. Fortunately for good Germans today these were returned to the Jews who originally owned them

  11. Sandy
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Michael Hoffman seems to agree with Trevor.

    THIS DAY IN HISTORY: Today, Feb. 14, is the 69th anniversary of the Allied fire bombing holocaust against the art city of Dresden, Germany, where upwards of 100,000 civilians were incinerated, and the priceless art treasures of the historic city were forever obliterated. The Hollywood movie “Monuments Men” is brimming with self-righteous portrayals of American soldiers as the saviors of art works stolen by the “evil Germans.” Hollywood puts a higher price on aesthetic artifacts than on human life, in that the incinerated civilians of all the major cities of Germany do not register on the conscience of the producers of this pompous “Monuments Men.” Even if we limit concern to aesthetics alone, the savage carpet-bombing of these mostly medieval German cities wiped out a fairy tale architecture of awesome beauty. The saturation incendiary bombing by the RAF and the US Army Air Force was one of the most barbarian assaults in the history of the West. Because the victims were the “wicked” German people however, this holocaust is barely a blip on the moral outrage screen of our patrician “Good War” enthusiasts. In terms of art, what the Allies destroyed in Dresden alone, surpasses by a factor of a thousand what the Nazis appropriated. —Michael Hoffman

  12. Walter
    Posted February 15, 2014 at 12:15 am | Permalink

    That was a valuable, well-worded review of a movie I had, upon first hearing of it, decided to ignore. It is yet another ignorant smear.
    The “rape of Europe” is a lucrative business endeavor.
    A few years ago I bought the book “Die Kunstsammlung Adolf Hitler” where the points enumerated above about the transfer of art into German hands are also discussed; and so I learned that:
    Adolf Hitler had set up a budget of 250 million Reichsmark for the purpose of acquiring works of art in all of Europe, especially in the occupied countries; that’s an enormous sum.
    Art that was found on abandoned estates-was properly recorded and either seized as being ownerless or put into safe-keeping. I have to re-read that and the book is not at hand right now, so that I have to cite from memory.
    Thirdly, and that might be the legalistic basis of all the looting lore, Allied Control Council Decree 19 (could be 18) declares illegal all business transactions in Germany or the occupied countries from 1933 to 1945. Therefore, the set of glasses my mother bought in 1939 when she was a girl were illegally acquired, as much as the leporello album my father got in Paris or the copy of the Discobolus of Myron bought by Adolf Hitler from its Italian owner in 1938 (?) for more than two million Reichsmark. In this case, Mussolini put some pressure on the owner also. The Discobolus was taken back to Italy after the war and no restitution for the buying price was ever made.
    Paris and Rome were declared open cities by Hitler to prevent them from being destroyed by bombing. Perhaps the time will come and his name will be remembered also for that and Churchill only for his bomber offensive culminating in Dresden’s destruction.
    Why do people like Clooney or Matt Damon dishonor themselves by partaking in such a negative and soul-killing film project?

  13. BourgeoisReactionary
    Posted February 17, 2014 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    One need only visit Hammond Castle on Massachusetts’ North Shore to see a plethora of European art stolen from monasteries and private collections after WW1 which wound up in the hands of an eclectic WASP connected with the intelligence establishment. Unfortunately, the descriptions of the purloined art do not appear on the website above, but if you take a tour you will learn that many of the works come from European monasteries and came into the owners possession after WWI.

  14. Vacant Serif
    Posted February 18, 2014 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    Clooney is to Cary Grant as Miley Cyrus is to Steve McQueen. I wish I was more adept at haiku it would be the perfect vehicle to distill my abhorration for this man. I pass a bus shelter with a poster for this film everyday and am visually assaulted by the collective smug of this group. Bleggh.

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