The true story is that the Nazi looting of Europe’s art treasures began in 1933 and continued through to the end of WWII.
Their relentless efforts to corner the market on priceless treasures netted them millions of pieces stolen from private collectors, the religious institutions and some national galleries.
They were hidden in empty mines and caves, in occupied castles and homes of highly placed Nazi officials and included paintings by the masters and modern artists, marble sculptures, religious icons, jewelry, even cars and trains.
Hitler intended to open an elaborate museum bearing his name and built by slave labor where these stolen treasures would be displayed.
The U.S. government was concerned by the Nazis’ growing recklessness as it became clear they would not win the war, fearing the destruction of these rat treasures.
A team of art specialists in a variety of disciplines was put together to retrieve it as efficiently as possible. The aim was to rescue it quickly as Hitler had given instructions that if Germany lost war or he died, it was all to be destroyed.
The Allies hoped to return the pieces or their rightful owners, a job that continues today with at least 100,000 pieces outstanding.
The movie opens with George Clooney addressing the US President on the Nazis supposed plans for the art and the cost to the world if the pieces were destroyed or hidden away from the rest of the world for all time. He asks and receives permission to put a group together and retrieve the art.
Clooney’s in familiar territory having covered Nazis and World War II in The Good German and political conspiracy stories in others. The Monuments Men is not an especially inventive or deep film, the subject matter is riveting.
It was covered before memorably and effectively in The Train. But kudos to Clooney for reminding us about this chapter in history, the Nazi plunder of art.
The Monuments Men were out to protect “monuments” – artwork and buildings of cultural significance or artistic interest. Each member of the band had his art specialty.
Matt Damon plays a restorer and John Goodman a sculpture expert. Hugh Bonneville of Downton Abbey fame parachutes in as an English art historian with a special interest in a particular Madonna and child marble.
Bob Balaban, Bill Murray and Jean Dujardin bring their characters’ talents to the mission. Clooney is the brains behind it.
Clooney gathered together his A-list Hollywood pals for the film, which makes for cohesiveness and familiarity.
To add to the authenticity they shot on location throughout Germany in and around sites where some of these events took place including caves where some of the treasures were hidden.
There is no attempt to arouse the horrors of war. Clooney’s telling a story about men who are not soldiers, older than the usual serviceman, with a mission that they believe in, that to some seems frivolous.
There are flashes of humor punctuating the film and overall it feels like an art world buddy / road picture. The torments of war just don’t figure in this particular tale.
Having said that, there is a kind of horror, the wholesale destruction of artworks by Nazis, recreated here. They were losing the war and set out to destroy everything in their path, the artwork especially, minus what Göring and Hitler and other officials took for their personal use.
How awful to think of the treasures that were killed with gas flares.
The film is deeply interesting and may renew awareness and strengthen efforts to find more of the missing treasure.