Monday, 20 July 2015


“Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.” - George BernardShaw

Nazi plunder refers to items stolen as a result of the organised looting of European countries during the time of the Third Reich by agents acting on behalf of the ruling Nazi Party of Germany. Art theft constituted a large proportion of this plunder. Plundering occurred from 1933 until the end of World War II, particularly by military units known as the Kunstschutz, although most plunder was acquired during the war.

In addition to gold, silver and currency, cultural items of great significance were stolen, including paintings, ceramics, books, and religious treasures. Although most of these items were recovered by agents of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFAA), affectionately referred to as the Monuments Men, on behalf of the Allies immediately following the war, many are still missing. There is an international effort under way to identify Nazi plunder that still remains unaccounted for, with the aim of ultimately returning the items to the rightful owners, their families or their respective countries.

Adolf Hitler was an unsuccessful artist who was denied admission to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts in his youth. Nonetheless, he thought of himself as a connoisseur of the arts, and in his ideological manifesto, “Mein Kampf”, he ferociously attacked modern art as degenerate, including: Cubism; Futurism; and Dadaism; all of which he considered the product of a decadent twentieth century society.

When in 1933 Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, he enforced his aesthetic ideal on the nation. The types of art that were favoured amongst the Nazi party were classical portraits and landscapes by Old Masters, particularly those of Germanic origin. Modern art that did not match this was dubbed degenerate art by the Third Reich, and all that was found in Germany’s state museums was to be sold or destroyed. With the sums raised, the Fuhrer’s objective was to establish the European Art Museum in Linz. Other Nazi dignitaries, like Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering and Foreign Affairs minister von Ribbentrop, were also intent on taking advantage of German military conquests to increase their private art collections.

Yesterday we watched a film that related directly to this Nazi plunder and efforts to recover the stolen art and return it to its rightful owners as WWII was ending. This was the 2014 George Clooney movie, “Monuments Men”, starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman and Jean Dujardin. George Clooney was also involved in the writing of the screenplay together with Grant Heslov, based on the book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter.

The film is an action drama focussing on an unlikely World War II platoon, which is tasked by FDR to go into Germany in order to rescue artistic masterpieces from Nazi thieves and returning them to their rightful owners. A difficult mission, as it receives little support from the ally forces intent on winning the war at whatever cost. The art is trapped behind enemy lines and the German army is under orders to destroy everything as the Reich fell, while the Russians are intent on taking the looted art back to Moscow with them. The seven men are museum directors, curators, architects and art historians, all more familiar with Michelangelo than the M-1, do the impossible and infiltrate enemy lines to find and recover the art. The Monuments Men, as they were called, find themselves in a race against time to avoid the destruction of 1000 years of culture, risking their lives to protect and defend mankind’s greatest achievements.

The basic premise of the film is good and the events it depicts are worthy of being more widely known – the making of such a film being a good way to increase public awareness. However, there are flaws, one of the most important being a weak script and lack of character depth. Add to that uninspiring direction by Clooney (who directs himself playing Clooney) and the film is a rather mediocre exposition of a wonderful true story.

The film repeatedly asks viewers whether a piece of art is worth a human life, and despite the platoon being composed of art lovers, we never get impression of why these people think that art is worth that much. The buddied up rescuers exchange mildly amusing repartee, trudge enemy lines and walk unopposed into unguarded treasure troves, recovering huge amounts of loot (at a cost) and in the end are congratulated by a grateful politician for what they have done, and once again the ponderous question is asked: “Was saving a piece of art worth a human life?” The question is not satisfyingly answered. This is an important question, especially as the film makes a couple of veiled references to the Holocaust, which is the elephant in the cinema that gets ignored…

Bill Murray and John Goodman act much better than do Damon and Clooney, but get less air time. Dujardin is too clichéd to take seriously and Blanchett is unfortunately cast as a token female and love interest in what is a essentially a guy-movie. Although we are shown seven Monuments Men, the real task force numbered around 350 (more believable, of course, but one has to bow to artistic license.

We watched the movie and it kept us engaged to a certain extent, but while watching it the flaws were irksome. It needed more experienced hands writing the script and directing it. It needed more structure, it needed a more coherent view of what art is and what its value to society is. It needed better development and exposition of the storyline with memorable scenes being built up to mini climaxes. Overall, the more I think about it, the more disappointing it seems… Watch it and make up your own mind.

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