Books /30 Mar 2014
‘The Monuments Men’ Reviews: Book and Film
Artistic license can take many forms when applied to historical narrative, and it is my hope that in reading my reviews of the book, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, and the film adaptation, The Monuments Men, the reader will get a full picture of the heroic men and women who rescued European art from the Nazis – the Monuments Men, and how they have been portrayed in print and on the silver screen.
The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel, with Bret Witter, takes the reader into the World War II war theater through the stories of ten of the brave men and women, the Monuments Men, who rescued art that had been stolen by the Nazis in Europe. The book is chronological, and the author cleverly weaves in historical anecdotes to show the importance of the preservation of art and culture during times of mass destruction and genocide.
Edsel’s powerful, moving narrative emphasizes the role of humanity in protecting the artifacts of antiquity, and stresses the non-monetary value of those artifacts which represent human possibility, creativity, and intellectual achievement.
The storyline allows the reader to travel with the Monuments Men on their journey to the front lines on a treasure hunt through Europe to find, identify, and return stolen art.
The book is divided into five sections, and it features one woman, Rose Valland, and nine men: Ronald Balfour, Harry Ettlinger, Walker Hancock, Walter “Hutch” Huchthausen, Jacques Jaujard, Lincoln Kirstein, Robert Posey, James Rorimer, and George Stout.
Section I: The Mission
Edsel begins in Karlsruhe, Germany. Through the lens of life in Karlsruhe, he describes the history of the Jews in Europe leading up to 1938. Jews were gradually disenfranchised, and when Hitler came to power many fled to the United States, including the family of Monuments Man Harry Ettlinger. Edsel juxtaposes this with the evolution of Adolf Hitler’s obsession with art. This storytelling device makes the plight of the Jews personal, while simultaneously giving historical context.
Before reading the book, I did not know that Hitler had been an aspiring artist. Rejected from art school, Hitler still believed he was meant to create great art. In 1938, while visiting Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, he saw Rome and Florence and his vision changed: “He was not destined to create, but to remake. To purge, and then rebuild. To make an empire out of Germany, the greatest the world had ever seen…Berlin would be his Rome, but a true artist-emperor needed a Florence.”
‘The Monuments Men’ by Robert M. Edsel. 512 pp. Center Street
Hitler drew up plans to make the Führermuseum in Linz, Austria (his hometown, his Florence), and fill it with art taken from countries he would conquer. As Hitler and the Nazis moved across Europe, occupying Paris and bombing London, the American museum community began preparing for war. It is here that the reader is introduced to George Stout, head of Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum’s Department of Conservation and Technical Research. Stout pioneered art conservation in the 1930s, creating scientific principles to evaluate and preserve art, and became the leader of the Monuments Men.
In 1943, General Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an executive order: “stating that important artistic and historical sites were not to be bombed.” – except when necessary to avoid sacrificing American soldiers. (pg. 46) Beginning in 1944, the Monuments Men were enlisted in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) sub commission, run by the Civil Affairs branch of the Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories (AMGOT). With a dedicated unit (MFAA) and Eisenhower’s executive order it seemed the Monuments Men’s mission was supported by the military. When they arrived in Europe, however, they found this was not the case.
Section II: Northern Europe
Upon entering the war theater in Northern Europe, the Monuments Men were able to see first hand the enormity of their mission and its challenges. More than five million cultural objects had been transported by the Nazis to the Third Reich, and it was their task to return them.
Edsel makes the two most important points in the book here: the complex nature of the Monuments Men’s task, and that they were not a unit. He uses their first group meeting on August 13, 1944, outside the ruins of Saint-Lô, France, to emphasize these points. Despite being a town of historical significance, 95 percent of Saint-Lô had been destroyed. It was a lynchpin of Allied success, giving them the high ground over the Germans. Military strategy to win the war superseded art preservation, and the Monuments Men had to complete their mission regardless. Also, though they were assigned to military units, they were alone in the field: “Theirs was a solitary task. They weren’t a unit; they were individuals with individual territories and individual goals and methods.” (pg. 87)
The Monuments Men dispersed to pursue their missions, and Edsel highlights two of the major pieces they needed to save: Michelango’s Bruges Madonna (Chapter 12), and Van Eyck’s Mystic Lamb, known as the “Ghent Altarpiece” (Chapter 14). These were prized by Hitler and held in his private collection.
American GIs hand-carried paintings down the steps of the castle under the supervision of Captain James Rorimer. (Monuments Men Foundation)
We are also introduced to the key European players in the story: Jacques Juajard, director of the French National Museum, and Rose Valland, secretary at the Jeu de Paume museum. Jaujard saved art housed in French museums, evacuating it to safe houses in the French countryside before the occupation. He aided the Monuments Men by helping to identify key private art collections the Nazis had confiscated. Valland secretly kept records of the art that was stolen and where it was being stored. By this point, Edsel has given the reader a solid grounding in the story. We are aware of the historical context, challenges, and significance of their mission. And then we enter Germany.
Section III: Germany
After the Allies used the bridge at Remagen to cross the Rhine and enter Germany, Hitler had four soldiers executed (March 18, 1945), and issued his Nero’s Decree (March 19, 1945). In it, Hitler ordered that German infrastructures – bridges, railroads, and factories – be destroyed to impede Allied advancement. The Nazis would raze everything in their wake to hinder the enemy. With the pressure of the Nero’s Decree driving them to complete their mission before Germany’s infrastructure is destroyed, the story takes on new intensity. The Monuments Men had identified which key art pieces they needed to rescue and they knew where to find them, it was a matter of getting there quickly and safely.
Valland had given the location of the repositories to James Rorimer, including the location of the French private collections – Neuschwanstein castle in Germany. Meanwhile, Robert Posey and Lincoln Kirstein came across an art expert who had worked in Paris. He told them that Hitler’s private collection, including the Bruges Madonna and Ghent Altarpiece, was in a salt mine in Altaussee, Austria. Through a stroke of luck American soldiers uncovered Nazi gold in a salt mine in Merkers, and discovered that it was an art repository as well. On April 8, 1945, Posey and Kirstein arrived at the mine and got to work identifying and categorizing the art. Posey contacted Stout, who came to help. Although the discovery of gold and treasure at Merkers made international headlines, there were still two important repositories to be recovered: Neuschwanstein and Altaussee.
Section IV: The Void
As the war came to a close, Germany became a “void” where the Allies were advancing, the Nazi government was collapsing, and no real authority existed. Edsel paints the picture of an investigative haze, filled with doubt and lacking information. It was in this chaos that the Monuments Men operated, trying to track down stolen art by talking with villagers and surrendering German soldiers. Some cooperated, while others did not. War weary and distrustful, they feared unforeseen repercussions. On May 4, 1945, Rorimer finally reached Neuschwanstein. The art was untouched, and the Nazi records and catalogues of the art were still in their filing cabinets. Then on May 7, 1945, the Germans unconditionally surrendered. The Allies had won the war.
Section V: The Aftermath
Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. It is clear in his last will and testament that he did not want the art the Nazis had confiscated destroyed, particularly his private collection. However, his actions and words leading up to that point, from Mein Kampf (1925) to his Nero’s Decree (1945), were in direct contrast to the ideals of art conservation and the preservation of humanity and its achievements. Edsel explains on page 373: “…his orders over the course of many years – including the burning of books; the destruction of ‘degenerate’ art; the pillaging of personal property; the arrest, detention, and systematic annihilation of millions of human beings; and the willful and vengeful destruction of great cities – put the artwork, and everything else within the reach of any Nazis anywhere in the world, at tremendous risk.”
Despite the efforts of high level Nazis to destroy the Altaussee mine, it was saved by the mine director, mine foreman, and the miners, who risked their lives by defying these orders in the name of art preservation. On May 12, 1945, Posey and Kirstein arrived in Altaussee where, with Stout, they recovered the Ghent Altarpiece and Bruges Madonna.
Though their mission had come to an end, Edsel uses this last section to explore the Monuments Men’s legacy and importance after the war. Rorimer used the former Nazi Party Headquarters in Munich as a collection point for southern Germany and Austria. And after that was full, another building in Wiesbaden. Almost 350 men and women served in the MFAA, most of them after the war, and they worked until 1951 to recover and return stolen art.
The Monuments Men continued to contribute to the art world after they came home. Some notable achievements include those of Lincoln Kirstein, James Rorimer, and George Stout. Kirstein co-founded the New York City Ballet in 1948. Rorimer became the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1955 and during his tenure attendance rose from two million to six million visitors annually. Stout became the director of the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, and then moved on to be the director of the Isabella Stewart Gerdner Museum in Boston. He is still considered a pioneer and giant in the world of art conservation.
Since World War II, there has been no unit equivalent to the MFAA in the U.S. military. The Monuments Men’s contribution to the world is one that should be duplicated, for their mission was not purely one of art conservation, but the protection of key artifacts that symbolized humanity’s potential for creation. The obstacles the Allies faced in defeating the Nazis were not just ones of geographic and political sovereignty, but also the protection of cultures, and their potential to evolve, for generations to come. I highly recommend Robert M. Edsel’s The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History for those in need of inspiration. Its message is universal and transcendent.
George Clooney directed, co-wrote, and stars in the film The Monuments Men. Therefore, much of the responsibility to make an accurate and engaging film rests on his shoulders. The result is disappointing. The book on which it is loosely based, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, tells the rich and exciting story of the men and women who rescued European art from the Nazis in World War II. It could have made an excellent film. Instead, it felt like Clooney was trying to make another Ocean’s film: a group of guys out on a heist. His attempt fell flat.
The film opens with Mr. Clooney, who stars as George Stokes, based on George Stout, addressing President Franklin D. Roosevelt about the importance of preserving art, which is being looted and destroyed in Europe. Stout is portrayed in the book as stoic, focused and driven. Stokes is a hokey caricature of Gary Cooper (star of the iconic 1941 war film “Sergeant York”), relying on one-liners and sappy speeches. The supporting cast is star studded: Matt Damon plays James Granger, based on James Rorimer. Bob Balaban plays Preston Savitz, based on Lincoln Kirstein. And Cate Blanchett plays Claire Simone, based on Rose Valland. A talented bunch with many Oscar nods to their name. Unfortunately their talent can’t save a mediocre script with limited plot development, and their characters come across as cartoonish.
There are several historical inaccuracies: the way the Monuments Men met, the methods and order in which the art is recovered, and how they carried out their mission, all vary from the book. All that could be allowed, perhaps, if the film had a cohesive storyline, but it lacks focus – jumping from one caper to the next – and relies on the audience’s knee-jerk negative emotional response to Nazis and swastikas; interspersed with sappy music, letters written home, and melodramatic death scenes.
The most upsetting fabrication is that the film, as opposed to the book, portrays the Monuments Men operating as a unit, which undercuts their true heroism. Theirs was a solitary mission and as such, with limited resources, made it all the more difficult and dangerous. There weren’t enough Monuments Men to have them all meet up and work on one project; travel together, recover art together, and go on adventures through Europe together. At most they would sometimes work in pairs; and perhaps George Stout, their leader, would be solicited for his expertise.
In my opinion, the true story of the Monuments Men needs no changes, and if changes are made they should be ones that add drama, and perhaps romance, to the story. The film should have adhered more closely the truth, as it was told in the book. Instead, the audience sees a fun group of guys, and one lonely French lady, who bumble through art filled adventures in World War II. The Monuments Men is a lackluster and unsatisfying watch, especially if you know the true story.
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The Monuments Men made $22 million over the weekend, good for second place, despite being been panned by most critics. (It currently holds a 32 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes; one critic found it so reprehensible he walked out.) Cinematic shortcomings aside, is the World War II action-comedy fairly faithful to the true story it’s based on, at least?
Aisha Harris is a Slate culture writer and host of the Slate podcast Represent.
Not really, no. While it preserves key facts and big moments, the script by George Clooney and Grant Heslov takes major artistic license in its depictions of the mission. As historian Elizabeth Campbell Karlsgodt told me, “It’s accurate on a very basic level, with the idea that President Roosevelt charged these art experts, led by Americans, but also including other Western Allies … to protect cultural heritage” during the war.
Beyond that, there are a number of “distortions,” in Karlsgodt’s words, starting with the very setup for the mission. The initial task, Karlsgodt explains, was to protect historic buildings, not recover art. “They were initially going to try to provide lists so that Allied forces wouldn’t bomb historic sites, and once they were on the ground, then identifying damaged buildings and trying to carry out repairs when they could.”
Using the film’s original source material, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel (with Bret Witter), as well as Karlsgodt’s expertise, I’ve sorted out fact and fiction in the film. Spoilers follow.
George L. Stout/Frank Stokes (George Clooney)
Lieutenant Stout was a World War I veteran and art conservationist at Harvard. Along with Fogg Art Museum’s associate director Paul Sachs—who is not depicted in the movie—he was one of the earliest and most prominent advocates for protecting art during the war and he proposed the training of “special workmen” for conservation. After trying and failing to enlist museum leaders in a collective national conservation effort, Stout applied for active duty in the U.S. Navy in early 1943.
In the film, we first learn about the mission when Stokes, in late 1943, passionately makes his case to President Roosevelt (Michael Dalton) for the value of saving artwork from Nazi looters. But while The Monuments Men puts him at the center of the formation of what would become Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA), in reality the subcommission was created without Stout’s direct input.
The Mission’s Beginnings
Meanwhile in Europe, British archaeologist and Lieutenant Colonel Sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler grew concerned that what remained of Leptis Magna, an ancient Roman ruin in Libya, would be plundered and decimated in the midst of the war. Along with Lieutenant Colonel John Bryan Ward-Perkins, and with the support of a Civil Affairs Officer, Wheeler “rerouted traffic, photographed damage, posted guards, and organized repair efforts” at the site, as Edsel explains. (None of this is depicted in the movie.)
This inspired greater efforts once President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill agreed to invade Europe. One British and one American officer were sent to Sicily to inspect the monuments and territories “as soon as practical after occupation,” Edsel writes. American Captain Mason Hammond arrived first; with no supplies or support, he doubted the validity of the mission. “Even the first ‘Monuments Man’ … initially thought the manner in which the army was going about the mission was utterly foolish and a waste of time,” writes Edsel. The movie, on the other hand, portrays the officers as more or less undaunted by their task.
In September 1943, Sachs was appointed as a member of the Roberts Commission, which had a mission similar to what Stout originally proposed (with Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts as chair). Sachs attributed the commission’s formation to Stout’s prior efforts, and he selected Stout to join the officer corps of the MFAA, an outfit the Commission decided to form.
James Rorimer/James Granger (Matt Damon)
Rorimer, who was drafted into the Army in 1943, was brought on to the mission by Sachs, his former professor at Harvard. Prior to his military stint, he helped expand the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval collection. As a Monuments Man, he played a key role in helping to discover the Heilbronn mines that housed art from German museums. Karldsgodt, who has read his diaries, says he accomplished a great deal alone, with little support from the military. In one instance, Rorimer wanted to inspect the island commune of Mont Saint-Michel 100 miles away, and was given authorization by his superior officer—but was informed he’d have to walk. (The Monuments Men spent much of their time hitching rides and walking, some of which we see in the film.)
Most of the rest of the gang portrayed in the film are based on real-life people.
- Walter Garfield (John Goodman) is inspired by Walker Hancock, described by Edsel as a “renowned sculptor of monumental works.”
- Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) is based on Ronald Balfour, a British officer who, like his fictional doppelganger, was killed in the line of duty. Unlike Jeffries, Balfour was not trying to save the prized Madonna of Bruges statue on his own when this occurred, but was evacuating other artifacts, along with four German civilians, from a damaged church in Clèves, Germany.
- Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) resembles Robert Posey, a quiet, reserved architect who was relatively unknown within the art world prior to the mission.
- Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) stands in for Lincoln Kirstein, who would go on to found the New York City Ballet.
- Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), the Jewish officer who fled Germany before the start of the war, is based upon Harry Ettlinger, one of the last surviving Monuments Men.
- Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) doesn’t appear to have a real-life equivalent. Karlsgodt informs me that while American and French officers worked together in post-war Germany during the restitution process, there were no French officers who worked with the men who inspired the film's other characters.*
The original assembly of assigned MFAA officers consisted of 11 men, seven Americans (including Hancock, Posey, Rorimer, and Stout), and four Brits, including Balfour. There were many more involved than are depicted in the film.
Rose Valland/Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett)
Rose Valland, like her fictional counterpart Claire, was an employee at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris who secretly recorded the whereabouts of the artifacts stolen by the Nazis in France. She also had a close and crucial relationship with Rorimer, which resulted in a pivotal dinner meeting, where she finally shared her information on the Nazis after several months of working with him.
Unlike in the film, however, their relationship was strictly professional: “There’s no way there was romantic tension between them,” Karlsgodt tells me. “And I think it’s unfortunate because she risked her life to carry out that intelligence work, and also later became a captain in the French army, and played in the restitution process once all that art had been recovered.” While Valland’s story is becoming more well known, and she’s now considered a “wartime hero,” Karlsgodt doesn’t think the film does enough to honor her legacy.
Hitler’s Plans for the Art
According to Karlsgodt, the depiction of Hitler’s Nero Decree is “oversimplified.” The decree was issued on March 19, 1945 as an attempt to prevent Allied forces from using resources against the Reich during the war. In it, Hitler ordered that “all military, transportation, communications, industrial, and food supply facilities” be destroyed, but it didn’t explicitly include art. In the movie, however, when Stokes reads the decree aloud, he lists “archives and art” among the things set to be destroyed. This, Karlsgodt points out, “enables the plot to move forward,” so that our heroes are “racing against the Germans who are set now to destroy the art if Hitler can’t have it.”
In actuality, Hitler’s will specified that his art go to German museums, “strong evidence” that he didn’t want that art destroyed. Karlsgodt also finds it highly improbable that the Monuments Men even knew about the decree during their mission. “The systematic destruction [as seen in the film] being carried out as a result of the Nero Decree never happened,” she says. “Nazis destroyed art that they considered degenerate, like Cubist, Surrealist, Expressionist paintings, and we know that they burned several thousand—at least—paintings that they thought were actually toxic to the German spirit… [But] they didn’t destroy the art they valued.” (This included Germanic art, and the Ghent Altarpiece depicted in the film, which Hitler considered to be an example of “Aryan genius.”)
Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges plays a pivotal part in the script, serving as the holy grail that the Monuments Men must reclaim in the memory of Jeffries, who dies trying to save it from Nazi capture. While it’s true that the statue (as well as the Ghent Altarpiece) would have been a priority for the mission, Karlsgodt feels that the film’s focus on those artifacts undermines the true significance of Hitler’s plans and their connection to the Holocaust. “It leaves out a really crucial aspect of this history,” she says. “Hitler saw it as a key way to seize the assets of Jews. He was not only eliminating Jewish influence, he was also getting their art.”
Though the Madonna was found in the Altaussee salt mine as it is in the film, the climactic race against the clock to excavate the art before the Soviets arrive to claim their territory is sped up for dramatic effect. As Edsel details in his book, the contents of the mine were recovered and recorded over the months of May and June 1945; when Allied-conquered territory was handed over to Soviet power, the crew had several days to carefully remove the most valuable pieces (including the Madonna and the discovered remaining panels of the Ghent Altarpiece) from the mine. Thanks to some disagreements over the deadline for relinquishing the territory, Stout and the other men at the scene had extra time, and were able to remove those pieces from the mine within a few days.
*Updated, Feb. 15, 2014: This sentence has been updated to clarify the French officers' work with American Monuments Men.