26 February 2014

Monuments Men: Fact and Fiction

When I first heard that Robert Edsel's Monuments Men was being made into a feature film, I was excited. The stories he captured about Allied efforts to save art, historic buildings, libraries, and archives in the wake of WWII are harrowing, remarkable, and inspiring, and make for perfect movie fodder. Plus, who doesn't like a feel-good museum story? The A-list casting made me skeptical (and George Clooney directing? Really?), but an extended preview featuring interviews with the cast about their passion for sharing the stories of the American Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) division and art preservation had me reassured (I'm also generally a sucker for Matt Damon films). But ultimately, the film disappointed me.

It fell short in so many of the ways films fail when they dramatize historical vignettes. With the exception of Jean Dujardin and Cate Blanchett, no members of the main cast were believable as art experts. The way in which the film played-up the team as 'mistfit soldiers' didn't allow the characters' individual stories as artists to breathe. I did enjoy Dmitri Leonidas' portrayal of Sam Epstein (Harry Ettlinger in real life), who had a soft, but striking personal narrative as a Jewish-American immigrant. But mostly, it felt as if I was seeing a caricature of the MFAA, rather than earnest stories. 

I was especially disappointed and irritated by the film's portrayal of Rose Valland (Claire Simon in the film-more French-sounding for American audiences, I guess?), who was arguably the most important figure in the preservation and recovery of French art during the war. This unassuming but sharp museum overseer remains one of the most decorated women in French history for her work in the Jeu de Paume during the war. First, the film deprives her of her credit by renaming her character (many of the men in the film kept their real names), and then creates a completely fictional, awkward, and gratuitous sexual tension between her and James Granger (played by Matt Damon). Instead of the intelligent, meticulous, and driven museum patriot she was, these moments in the film make her seem much more like a pathetic old maid who is desperate for male attention. A real missed opportunity to highlight a true heroine of WWII. You can read more about Rose Valland and other women of the Monuments Men here.

The combination of Clooney's very Ocean's Eleven directorial style and mis-matched sound further amplified the caricature effect. Alexander Desplat's often hokey-sounding Americana score deprived the film of much of its gravitas (compare the trailer to the actual film, and you'll see what I mean). With the remarkable story material, I should have been inspired. Instead, I felt throughout as if I were watching Hogan's Heroes. The lighter tone somewhat undermined the underlying serious message of the film--that art is very much an essential part of human life, and is worth saving--even dying for. The cinematography and editing also failed to create an appropriate scale for many of the anecdotal stories taken from Edsel's chronicles. I remember reading Edsel's retelling of investigating the salt mines, which give you a much better feel for the enormity and danger of the recovery effort. In the film, the dark, slow, claustrophobic elevator rides thousands of feet underground were reduced to quick cuts from the surface, and the gradual exile of the Jeu de Paume collections was made to happen almost overnight. This compression takes away from the story a bit. There also might be something to be said of how the writing and editing [fail to] create a coherent story. I saw the film with a friend (also an archivist and history buff) who hasn't read Edsel's book, and it was noticeably more work for her to follow the story than it was for me, who benefitted from familiarity with many of the people and episodes that the film adapted from the manuscript.

There are a few things that the film does well. The imagined Nazi torching of one mine stronghold of art and shots of Hitler's scale model of the planned F├╝hrermuseum do provide an adequate sense of the enormity of German ambitions to showcase their [mostly stolen] cultural superiority and the immense destruction of property and human life that it entailed. Several remarks and small moments relating to the absurdity of the MFAA's mission given their resources were woven into the film, and did largely reflect reality. While the MFAA was ultimately much larger (~400) than a rag-tag band of a half-dozen museum curators, they did have substantial difficulty in gaining credibility and actually carrying out their charge. Because most early MFAA members were museum men rather than true soldiers, they had little sway with military commanders, who cared much more about their men than cultural preservation, even if the orders came directly from Eisenhower. This, combined with their low ranks (middle-aged men as privates), made it difficult to get so much as a truck to travel to their list of important sites, at locations away from the action. Edsel writes about how hitch-hiking was really the only way to go early on. What a sight to imagine--all of Europe's cultural patrimony in the hands of some American soldiers who can't even drive.

Ultimately, if it takes George Clooney, Matt Damon, et al. to get people aware and excited about the importance of historic and cultural preservation, then the film will serve a good purpose. But there is much more to the story of the Monuments Men than the film allows. While the film adopted a dominant American slant, the recovery effort was truly an international one, and it extended far beyond art. Historic buildings, monuments, libraries and archives were also part of the mission. Linda Barnickel has put together a great list of links that explore the MFAA's work with archives and libraries. National Archives (NARA) staff have written a series of blog posts profiling individual Monuments Men and related records, which can be found here. In addition to Edsel's Monuments Men book, Lynn Nicholas' The Rape of Europa provides a broader profile of the plunder and destruction of culture and art in Europe during the war. This book is the basis for a PBS documentary of the same name, which I highly recommend (trailer below).

Robert Edsel has also just released a new book focusing on Italy. 

If you want to get straight to the source, NARA's records from the MFAA and the post-war Nazi looting investigations have been digitized and are available online at Fold3, and ancestry.com affiliate focusing on historical military records. You do have to register to view the records, but setting up an account is free, as is access to most of the major collections, including MFAA and Ardelia Hall (Just click 'Browse Records', 'World War II,' then 'Holocaust Collection'). NARA's collection description for the art looting investigation records can be found here.

While highlighting the instrumental American role in the WWII recovery effort, it is important to remember just how 'young' the U.S. was at that time as a cultural center. While many of Europe's museums plundered by the Nazis had existed for centuries, DC's own National Gallery of Art was only established in 1937, in the wake of the war. Many of the American Monuments Men used the considerable knowledge and networks they gained during the recovery efforts to acquire European works for fledgling U.S. museums, built upon the private collections of the likes of Andrew Mellon, et al. (read more here). We have them to thank for the world-class collections we can see in major U.S. cities today.

Decades after the heroic efforts of the MFAA helped saved countless works of art, buildings, books, and papers, property stolen by the Nazis is still being discovered today. The most recent discovery was a large collection of art estimated to be worth more than $1 billion found in 2012 in the home of a descendant of a German Jew who sold confiscated art under the Nazi regime. As experts sort through the new treasure trove, they are discovering lost works of masters such as Picasso, Renoir, and Monet.

In the case of the Monuments Men, fact proves to be much more interesting than fiction, so don't stop at the film.


Robert Edsel's Monuments Men

Rose Valland (Wikipedia)

'Not All Monuments Men Were Men': Rose Valland and Ardelia Ripley Hall

'Monuments Men' Trailer

Monuments Men and Archives

NARA Blog Posts on Monuments Men

Lynn Nicholas' The Rape of Europa

'The Rape of Europa' (PBS)

Robert Edsel's Saving Italy

Fold3 (historical military records)

NARA Collection Description for OSS Art Looting Investigation Unit Reports

MFAA Impact on American Museums (LAT)

New Trove of Nazi Art Seized in Germany (NYT)

More Art Found in Nazi Trove (TIME)

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