The Monuments Men, a Sony Pictures film directed by George Clooney, is based on the 2009 book by Robert M. Edsel, titled The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. It is a story with many ironies. One of the works of art that plays a starring role in both film and book is the Michelangelo sculpture known as the Bruges Madonna. When Hitler’s German troops hauled it away from the Belgian town of Bruges in 1944, they were only repeating what Napoleon’s French troops had done in 1794, when the sculpture was shipped to Paris. Poor Belgium. In fact, the Germans’ legalized plunder had a clear precedent in Napoleon’s use of one-sided treaties for the same purpose.
Another irony is the probable explanation of how the Bruges Madonna—along with a priceless trove of other works stored by the Germans in Austria’s Altaussee salt mines—came to be saved from obliteration. Precise details are murky, but it seems likely that one of the key factors in sabotaging a German edict to blow up the entire mine complex was not a love of art, but the resistance of local salt miners to seeing their centuries-old livelihood go up in smoke.
In the film, the evacuation of the salt mines is a feat of all-American derring-do, replete with the Stars and Stripes and a race against Russian baddies. The reality was a little different—as were the characters of the men involved. The mastermind of the removal operation, George Stout, was a professional conservator of a methodical and somewhat reserved demeanour, compared to George Clooney’s laid-back persona as “Frank Stokes.” Here, as elsewhere, dramatic licence abounds.
On the other hand, a visit to the dentist by one of the Monuments Men did indeed lead to the capture of an art dealer-collaborator. Also factual is the dinner tryst between French curator Rose Valland (“Claire Simone,” played by Cate Blanchett, and James Rorimer (“James Granger,” played by Matt Damon). Cate Blanchett has to work quite hard to bring Rose Valland—one of the saga’s true heroines—to life, while avoiding a quagmire of feminine stereotypes.
Most of the liberties taken in the film are harmless, although references to the burning of paintings by German soldiers are overdone. Generally even the works of so-called “degenerate” artists such as Picasso and Max Ernst were sold by the Nazis through middlemen to generate revenue either for the Reich, or for individuals on the take.
Overall, the spirit of the book is Boy’s Own Paper, while the film is closer to an Ealing Comedy and, as such, is mildly entertaining. The film does, at any rate, celebrate the story, which would otherwise remain unknown to a wider public. Nor does it shy away from the price paid in human life by some of the Monuments Men. If you want to know more, however—in particular, about the work of the Monuments Men in Italy, a subject explicitly omitted from Edsel’s book—take a look at The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War, by Lynn H. Nicholas (New York: Knopf, 1994).
The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History (New York: Center Street, 2009) by Robert M. Edsel is available through the NGC Bookstore.
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