A few years ago, I watched at PBS special about the Monuments Men, a group of soldiers who were charged with finding and returning masterpieces looted from Jews collectors, museums, and churches by the Nazis. When I heard that George Clooney was directing and starring in a movie about the story, I definitely wanted to see it. Clooney – who’s always as beautiful as any work of art – plays Frank Stokes (the real-life George Stout), a conservator and museum director. In explaining the importance of the project, Stokes says “You can wipe out a generation of people. You can burn their homes to the ground, and somehow they’ll still come back. But if you destroy their achievements, and their history, then it’s like they never existed.”
It’s a dramatic story, as tense as any thriller. Art was hidden in mines and castles, such as Neuschwanstein in Bavaria. The vast castle was so stuffed with stolen art that it took a year and 49 railcars to empty it. I was an exchange student in Germany when I was in high school. During the film, I was surprised to learn about the art hidden in the mine in the next town over to where I lived that was destroyed during the waning days of the war. But the Monuments Men did manage to save five million of works of art, many of which were priceless treasures.
Cate Blanchett portrays Frenchwoman Claire Simone, who is based on the real-life Rose Valland. Valland was a Resistance fighter who worked at the Jeu de Paume, a Paris museum where looted works were gathered before being shipped to Germany. She catalogued each work in a secret journal so that they could be returned to their rightful owners. The importance of her work is somewhat underplayed in the movie. Disputes over ownership and lack of proof kept many works away from their rightful owners for decades. Many are still in limbo. I do have a suggestion, however; why not cast a French woman to play a French woman? Why not Juliette Binoche or Sophie Marceau? I’m a big fan of Cate Blanchett, but her accent did seem to come and go like morning fog in Paris.
A comedic element came from Matt Damon’s character, who plays James Granger , who asserted that he was fluent in French, only to have French people implore him to switch to English because his French was so incomprehensible. A genuine French accent came from Jean Dujardin (of The Artist), who played the role of Lieutenant Jean Claude Clermont, a Gallic member of the team. Having both Clooney AND Dujardin in one film is reason enough to see Monuments Men.
If something is classé monument historique (klasay mon-u-mehn iss-tor-eek) it means that something is a listed historic monument. The full name of the Allied program was the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program. Clearly, Monuments Men was a lot easier to say. In real life, there were 345 Monuments Men, not just the handful of aging, out-of-shape art experts portrayed in the film. Some suggest that what was saved is outnumbered 10-to-1 by what was lost. A truly staggering waste. A monumental one.