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The Monuments Men

2,560 words

monuments [1]German translation here [2]

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 [3]. 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 [4] 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 [5], 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 [6],” 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 [7],” 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.