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The Monuments Men

Monuments Men

Monumental men doing manly stuff that's less than monumental

dir: George Clooney

Is a work of art worth as much or more than a human life?

It's not just the central question of this film, asked out loud literally, multiple times, in case we didn't get the point. It's an important question in anyone's life.

It's also not a question Clooney should be getting the audience to ask themselves as they watch one of his movies.

"Sure, films can be works of art, but no-one should have to take a bullet for a film by George Clooney".

The film, The Monuments Men, asks and answers the question several times, with a different answer at the beginning versus at the end, but it's not entirely convincing.

It's convincing as a film, since there are people in it, and the story has an intriguing premise, is a true story, and has a whole bunch of other reasons to recommend it. It will bore the pants off of people who aren't interested in the subject matter or who were hoping for Saving Private Ryan II. It transpires during World War II, but it is not a war movie in the usual sense of the genre, though it uses all of the tropes from All Quiet on the Western Front through to M*A*S*H, and many cliches in between.

It's not a great film, but it's not a completely horrible one either. It looks at the war from another perspective beyond the immense human toll, which, surely, we needed, but in a way rarely considered.

What could be worse than wiping out millions of people? Well, what if not only you did that, but you tried to deplete ALL of the 'culture' of the world, not only killing a whole bunch of people, but trying to wipe out the artworks of people long gone that mean a hell of a lot to a lot of people, some of whom might yet make it?

So, simply put, initially at least, Hitler wanted all of Europe's artworks. All of the classical, neo-classical, Renaissance, Impressionist, Mannerist, Dutch Masters, everything. Well, everything except the Cubists and Surrealists and anything by Jewish people, which naturally he thought were degenerate and needed to be burned.

Was this because he was a failed artist himself? Of course. Nothing makes you into a bitter dictator like having people laugh at your art. But there was more at stake. It wasn't enough to exterminate the Jews of Europe, and take all their possessions, their names, their existence; he had to take their art as well. Not only from them, but from the countries he invaded as well.

The film contends that this was part of a plan to build The Fuhrer Museum, which would probably have had all the great works of Europe in one place, with Hitler's paintings probably as the centre piece, just to say "Sure, all these Rembrandts and Titians and Monets are fine, but the best art produced in the last 1000 years was by, coincidentally, the Supreme Chancellor of the Eternal Reich, Hitler, whose picture of a sunset really was the bomb".

So let's ignore the fact that this was just another attempt by the Nazis to drain everything of value out of Europe, and that this stuff, in a lot of cases, was priceless. The spoils of war. The morons you had lugging the stuff around wouldn't have known what a lot of it was worth, or have cared. But the bigger atrocity the film throws at the faces of the now thankfully long dead Fuhrer and his loyal psychopaths is that they wanted to steal away or destroy the great artworks that are not just emblematic of European culture and civilisation: they are European culture and civilisation, which belongs to all of humanity (though not, unfortunately, in a financial sense).

The Nazis wanted to murder and sadistically dominate entire continents, but they also wanted to rob future generations of that which linked humanity to its past and its better nature, its aspiration to the transcendent, to the divine.

Who can stop them from their murderous cultural rampage?

George Clooney, of course.

Who? Clooney? Yes, that Hollywood showpony isn't content at the top of said cesspool of ingrates and egomaniacs. He has to retroactively keep up safe from the evils of the past, gods love him, by prosecuting Ze Nazis all over again.

I don't have a problem with that. Never Forget, isn't that a motto of some kind I might have heard somewhere? But it's not enough to endlessly remind ourselves of how awful the Nazis were. It's important to catalogue the sheer abundance of ways in which they were awful.

Clooney not only stars in this warm ego bath of a movie, he directs it as well. His character can be seen trying to convince the US President that something needs to be done about what the Nazis are doing, even if it's in the waning days of the war. He's heard that the Nazis are hording Europe's artworks, but it's unclear whether they're doing it for profit, because they're mad keen art fans, or whether it's to destroy them all.

Turns out it's a little from all three columns, and they're being pretty ruthless about it, unlike all the other stuff they did during the war. They've also been meticulous about it, with records and ledgers and stuff, the murderous accountants that they are, which thankfully is what undoes some of their more horrific plans.

As well as the obvious problem of getting about France, Belgium and even Germany before the war's even done, since we know it's about to end, but they don't, they also have the Soviets to contend with, who have also set up a team of art 'experts' wanting to hunt down the art stolen by the Nazis. Difference is, they want to take all that good nice art back to Mother Russia as reparations, as spoils of war from their hated enemy that killed so, so many of them.

The Americans have their Monuments Men. The Soviets have their Trophy Brigade. Couldn't be more different. Worlds apart.

Clooney, I mean, sorry, Clooney with a moustache being called Frank Stokes, puts together a crew of very old guys who really give a damn about art. The youngest of them is probably Matt Damon. The oldest of them is probably Bill Murray. The oldest looking of them is John Goodman. The Frenchest of them is Jean Dujardin. The Britishest of them is played by Hugh Bonneville, of Lord Grantham Downton Abbey fame. The shortest of them is Bob Balaban.

Watching it, I had no idea what anyone was called, but I guess it didn't matter. They're a curious group of Dirty Dozen / The Expendables 'soldiers' who come together to do a job. They all have a background in something vaguely artistic, though why architects and lecturers would be better placed to find this stuff than the average grunt is not something I can readily discern. They represent a bunch of generic war movie clichés, each possessing a character even more generic than the last.

There's also that famous French actress Cate Blanchett playing a French woman who has some dealings with the Nazis to do with art. She knows what the score is. Her awful, pudgy boss at some museum / private viewing gallery for Hermann Goering has about two scenes in the flick, and both of them are hilarious.

Blanchett's character doesn't trust the Americans, believing that they intend to take the artworks back to the States, as if certain that Clooney's going to hang a Da Vinci in his toilet, replacing that calendar from the local butchers that usually sits on the back of the door. It's Matt Damon's character's job to convince her that her crappy French accent is tres bien, and that they're on the straight and narrow.

His major achievement is convincing her of this without having to put out. How will he maintain his gentle virtue in this decadent Eurotrash art scene?

I have a few average things to say about the flick, and only a few good ones, but that doesn't make it a particularly bad film. It's okay when it's okay, but it has a lot of, can I say, weird scenes that don't make a lot of sense, don't elaborate upon or develop the characters, or scenes put together inelegantly so that I am not sure what happened (or why), despite the fact that I was stone cold sober while I was watching the film.

A lot of the time it seems like Clooney is deliberately trying to eschew from the usual movie stuff we've come to expect when Americans make movies set in this era. At other times, he seems to insert those war movie clichés without much of a reason or a payoff, to not much effect. The performances are okay, as you'd expect from a bunch of old pros, but there isn't much of a credible feeling of urgency to this.

The fundamental question keeps being asked again and again, and answered differently within the flick, but I'm not sure the film actually makes its case.

What is the worth of a priceless work of art? Not in the financial sense, or even in the sense of the cultural worth or importance, but is it worth a human life, more or less?

They explicitly say no at the start. Sure, our job's important, they say, but don't lose your life over it. A disgraced former British officer (Bonneville) asks a British commander not to use or to avoid a particular building when they attack a certain town, and the commander splutters something along the lines of "I don't give a portly rodent's posterior what art's in the place, I'm not going to risk my men's lives if using that building tactically or strategically saves my men or destroys the enemy!" and we're meant to think he's being unreasonable.

Well, I certainly didn't. Had I been in the commander's position, which thank Satan will never happen, where soldiers' lives were my responsibility, I would have blown said important artistic building to smithereens and smashed the remaining splinters with my bare hands if it would save a few more lives.

Who would want to be the commanding officer who writes the letter back to some dead soldier's wife / husband / kids / parents saying "Yeah, well, I could have saved them, but there was this building that had this really cool original painting of a matador on black velvet, and another one of dogs playing poker, and we just couldn't use the building in our offensive, so rest assured that Private Pumpernickel died for a good cause. Let my gentle artsy-fartsy words be of deep comfort to you, and if you like, you can come around and see the paintings, any time you like, promise!"

So, okay, it's not worth a human life. But then, in a moving (but contrived) sequence, someone gets to literally put their life on the line to defend a sculpture, a Michelangelo, of the Madonna and child. This Madonna, just like the "Like a Virgin" Madonna in our real world, comes to have a symbolic / totem-like importance for the rest of the film. If they can get the Madonna back, then everything will have been worth it.

One of them number dies in defense of... art itself? His death doesn't deter the Germans in the slightest. Had he not been there, had he not died, the outcome was the same. But in death, that character is redeemed for his past misdeeds and embarrassments. In fact, people are downright relieved at his death, because it makes up for his shitty later life.

So, therefore, it's not worth most people's lives, but it is worth the pointless sacrifice of someone desperate for redemption.

Check. Copy that. Got it.

Of course I didn't want the Nazis to succeed, or the Soviets, and of course I understand the magnitude of the crime being perpetrated, but a lot of the time I just keep feeling like "It's just stuff, people. Just stuff. It's an outgrowth or a symbol of culture and aesthetic refinement and all that stuff, but even if that stuff was destroyed, the history, culture and other elements would persist, because we can always make more stuff just like it."

It's just stuff, and I don't think I ever bought that it was any more significant or valuable than any of the other stuff the Nazis took from so many people. And that's a case in point, because in a wrenching (for me) scene where they find one of many Nazi hordes, they find sacks and sacks of gold. Not just jewelry, or gold bars, though they find those too, but millions of bits of gold taken from the teeth of the Jews they murdered. That was something awful stolen. Their lives, and their teeth, but mostly their lives. That represented just how awful their regime was.

I cared more about that as being emblematic of something horrible stolen more so than worrying about whether some church in Ghent or Bruges would get its bloody altar piece back.

It might strike other people differently. It's not a bad film (though it felt way too long). It has merits, who says it doesn't? But it'll probably be a snoozefest except for those strange sorts of people who like seeing war films with almost no war in them.

6 times Clooney saves the best scene for himself when talking to a Nazi colonel, as is his right under the Geneva Convention out of 10

“You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they'll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it's as if they never existed. That's what Hitler wants and that's exactly what we are fighting for.” – the quote’s more effective than the entire film – The Monuments Men