“We should also remember the high price that will be paid if the very foundation of modern civilization is destroyed,” Frank Stokes (George Clooney), tells President Roosevelt (Michael Dalton) at the beginning of The Monuments Men, a new historical film Clooney also wrote and directed about the special military squads assembled to save monuments, art, and archives during World War II. The task was undeniably important–Hitler was pillaging private Jewish art collections as well as museums and churches for his planned Fuhrermuseum, and architectural landmarks were being bombed into oblivion. And Stokes and the team he assembles will repeat it over and over again throughout the movie. The ideas that saving art, architecture, and archives, and that such artifacts shouldn’t be taken as spoils of war, are ones that I’m hugely sympathetic to. But The Monuments Men is a poor argument for its own loftily-stated ideas that preserving our art and architecture is essential to preserving our humanity during war.
One of the most difficult tasks for The Monuments Men, as for almost any movie, is to figure out how to connect the film’s central conceit–the recovery of art the Nazis stole from museums, churches, and private collectors, Jews prominent among them–to the Holocaust. It’s a task that inspires two of the movie’s best scenes, and one of its worst.
In the first, Metropolitan Museum of Art medievalist James Granger (Matt Damon), working with French curator and spy Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), discovers a stolen painting that has an address on the back. When he tracks down the apartment, the door is open, and what furniture remains has been ransacked. As he hangs the painting back on a bare wall, matching it to the faded paper left behind, Claire tells James that its owners are never, ever coming back to claim the piece that was stolen from them. But James says he has to start somewhere. In a rare case of The Monuments Men not spelling out precisely what it means in exhaustive detail, we can see that the humble painting on the wall of an ordinary Paris apartment will serve as a kind of gravestone, a reminder to anyone who comes after that the prior occupants were people with taste and a sense of beauty.
Later in the film, director Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) and architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), who have mostly been used for comic relief in earlier sequences, visit the private home of a former German soldier. They’ve been directed there by the man’s uncle, a dentist who treated Richard, and who is enthusiastic about the idea that his nephew, who has some art education, might be able to help the Americans preserve great art. Instead, they discover that the man’s home has a suspiciously lovely collection of extravagantly framed art, which he claims are copies. But Preston, looking at the back of one piece, makes a chilling discovery. “The back of the Cezanne says Rothschild,” he says with an air of quiet anger that’s very different from his earlier peppery presentation. “It was a gift,” the main claims. “And the Renoir, too,” Preston pushes forward. The family is hiding art until it can be delivered to Hitler. It’s a damning illustration of the complicity of ordinary Germans, an argument that citizens shared Hitler’s rapacious sense of entitlement to Jewish possessions.
If the movie had focused on expanding our understanding of German hatred for Jews, and tied the theft of Jewish art collections to the larger Nazi project of eradicating Jewish culture, it might have, in a small way, pushed Holocaust movies forward, and given weight to the claims the characters constantly make about the importance of their mission. Instead, The Monuments Men includes a number of references to the physical brutality of the concentration camps in what seem like an awfully perfunctory manner, including one discovery of a barrel full of gold fillings that were extracted from Jews’ teeth. The quickness of that scene, and a confrontation between Frank and a concentration camp commandant might have been better left out, the movie trusting us to know that genocide is integral to the Nazi project, and instead providing new insight on what the full process of genocide actually means.
Another angle the film might have developed in greater detail is the true extent to which the team was setting precedent–even among the Allies. There are references to the idea that during war, art has traditionally been treated as spoils. When they first meet, Claire assumes that James is only interested in recovering French art so he can relocate it to the Met. Frank’s team begins to race against Soviet teams who are snapping up art as spoils, proof that 20 million Russians didn’t die for nothing. But this idea shows up only periodically to juice the movie’s anemic dramatic tension, rather than becoming one of the consistent drivers of the action. I wish The Monuments Men had dealt with Allied complicity in the destruction of culture during the war some substantial, rather than theoretical way, maybe by acknowledging the Battle of Monte Cassino, during which the Allies bombed the monastery where the Benedictine Order was founded.
But even if The Monuments Men had risen to these intellectual challenges, it would still be a failure. The movie also flits between tones–Frank’s scenes are weighted with duty, James’ with romantic tension, Preston and Richard’s with comic relief, and as Donald Jeffries, a disgraced Brit trying to win back his honor by protecting the Madonna of Bruges, Hugh Bonneville appears to have wandered in from another picture entirely, maybe even an utterly different medium. Clooney and his co-writer Grant Heslov have already slimmed down the number of real-life characters by creating composites. Even so, the movie remains crowded to the point of being unable to build coherent, emotionally-realized storylines. And for a movie about art, The Monuments Men can be an indifferently filmed picture, getting lost in forests of statues and stacks of canvas and failing to pull out individual images that communicate the specific power of the pieces.
“You think it was worth it, for a piece of art?” President Truman (Christian Rodska) asks Frank at the end of the film, questioning the human cost of the project. Frank’s answer is yes, as is the movie’s. But The Monuments Men would have been better for learning from the art it venerates: a single clear, beautiful image communicates more than a pile of canvases.