OK, reviews of The Monuments Men (trailer) have been tepid, George Clooney did give himself all the high-minded speeches, and it was hard to suspend disbelief with the star-power cast (who did a great job but are monuments themselves). Still, despite all those quibbles—and the spate of belated “the real story” websites and compelling personal stories emerging—this was an entertaining and satisfying movie, based on the book by Robert Edsel. For an exciting fictional treatment of this episode, see my review of Sara Houghteling’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
The characterizations of the architects, archivists, and artists that formed the film’s Monuments Men team are strong, and a surprising amount of humor is inherent in their personalities and the interactions between them, despite their desperate mission. Its purpose, as George keeps telling us, was not just to preserve “stuff,” but our way of life, our history, patrimony. The movie spares us conflicted opinions about its characters. They’re pure black or white, good or bad, people who want to save art or those who want to burn it. This oversimplification is a source of some of the criticism.
That is to say, there’s something comfortably old-fashioned about this film. If you’ve seen enough WWII films, you can guess the directions the plot will take, but really, the stakes are so high, does it matter?
Clooney’s character is right. This was a vitally important mission. It was hard. It was dangerous. And these heroes—seven actors representing around 350 real-life “monuments men” from many countries—accomplished it. Together they recovered more than five million paintings, sculptures, church bells, tapestries, and other works looted by the Nazis.
The Monuments Men is especially fun viewing for those of us here in Princeton, because more than a dozen of the real Monuments Men had ties to Princeton, two of whom directed the Princeton University Art Museum from 1947 to 1972.
One of the directors, Dr. Patrick Kelleher, wrote his doctoral dissertation in 1947 about St. Stephen’s crown, a Hungarian national treasure he helped recover from the Nazis . I saw it in Budapest, after it was restored to the Hungarians by former President Jimmy Carter.
Not everything the Nazis looted was saved; and not everything has been found—“The Amber Room” is a premier example. Many stolen works may today be stored in basements and attics or even hanging on the walls of the children and grandchildren of ordinary soldiers who carried them home. And they still make news, as recently as last week. (And again, on April 8 and on April 12) As author Robert Edsel says, “They can be found,” as “Jewess with Oranges” was in 2010. His Monuments Men Foundation is intended to accomplish exactly that.
At the opening of the movie in Princeton, current and retired Princeton University Art Museum leaders spoke with the audience and related this anecdote: On Christmas Eve, 1945, some Monuments Men were celebrating in a room full of unopened cartons. Someone said, “Hey, it’s Christmas, shouldn’t we open a package?” He found a crowbar and pried open a wooden crate, reached in, and pulled out the bust of Nefertiti. Was it worth it. Oh, yes.
Alas, the lessons of this extraordinary collaboration between the military and the world of art and archaeology were neglected in the 2003 assault on Baghdad, when U.S. troops failed to secure the high-priority National Museum of Iraq (below; photo: wikimedia.org) Although museum officials already had quietly hidden most of the collection, some 15,000 items looted items have still not been recovered.