Elizabeth Campbell Karlsgodt
University of Denver
The history of Nazi art looting has gone mainstream. In November 2013, revelations about Cornelius Gurlitt’s art trove in Munich captured news headlines and popular imagination around the world. The reclusive 80-year-old, whose father was an art dealer for the Nazis, had ferretted away in a small apartment some 1300 paintings and drawings worth an estimated $1 billion. Experts believe nearly six hundred of the pieces may have been stolen from Jewish owners or sold by them under duress. Gurlitt’s passing in May 2014 and his bequest of the entire collection to the Kunstmuseum in Bern, Switzerland, ensures the case will garner public attention for years, if not decades, as European authorities tackle legal and ethical complexities in determining rightful ownership.
Press coverage of the Munich art trove was a publicity boon for George Clooney, who directed, co-wrote, co-produced and stars in The Monuments Men, released in February 2014. Billed as an “action-thriller,” it is inspired by the true story of American and European art experts who became officers in the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section of Allied forces, and recovered several million cultural objects from Nazis art repositories in castles and salt mines. Clooney and his writing partner, Grant Heslov, based the screenplay on the book of the same title by Robert Edsel, a retired oil entrepreneur who has made a second career out of celebrating the work of the MFAA officers, popularly known by their nickname, “the Monuments Men.” Clooney recruited Edsel to serve as the film’s only historical consultant and secured an A-list cast, including Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bill Murray, and Bob Balaban.
The film has enjoyed considerable commercial success despite consistently negative reviews for a variety of cinematic shortcomings, including poor character development, slow pacing, dull dialogue and curiously uninspired performances from a talented cast. Delving into another dimension of the film, this review examines its value from a historical perspective and whether it is suitable for classroom use, focusing on the portrayal of Nazi looting and MFAA activity in France. Rather than dwelling on the minor inaccuracies one might expect from a big-budget Hollywood production, my critique focuses on the broader depiction of history, and the extent to which the central contours of the narrative offer an authentic portrayal of events and reflect recent scholarship in this area.
The screenwriters based the film’s central characters on actual MFAA experts but changed the officers’ names. As Clooney explained to Entertainment Weekly, “They were real people, and you don’t want to give real people flaws. So we changed the names so we could mess with them a little bit.” Clooney stars as Frank Stokes, inspired by Monuments Man George Stout, a world-renowned conservator at Harvard University’s Fogg Museum who played an instrumental role in the creation of the MFAA. Matt Damon portrays James Granger, a character based on James Rorimer, an expert in French medieval art and architecture and curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he would later serve as director from 1955 to 1966. In France, the most important “Monuments Man” was Rose Valland, a representative from the French Musées nationaux who spied on Nazi looting operations at the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris. Clooney and Heslov reimagined Valland as Claire Simone, played by Cate Blanchett. They also created an entirely fictional French officer portrayed by Jean Dujardin, best known to American audiences through his Academy award-winning performance in The Artist. According to Clooney, he and Heslov invented Dujardin’s character to “placate the French,” an aim perhaps undermined about halfway through the film, when the Frenchman leaves the security of a Jeep to pet a grazing horse and is killed by German soldiers.
The film opens with the phrase routinely seen at the beginning of historical films: “based on a true story.” Soft string music provides the background to some opening credits, then—bang! We are startled to attention by loud hammering. Belgian clergymen are dismantling the famed Ghent altarpiece, a fifteenth-century polyptych housed at the Saint Bavo cathedral, and one of Belgium’s greatest cultural treasures. Additional text tells us the scene is unfolding in Ghent, though no date is provided. We later learn that German soldiers had seized the altarpiece from a truck in Brussels, and killed the two Belgian priests who were transporting it. Already, these early scenes oversimplify Nazi looting. In May 1940, Belgian authorities had aimed to send the altarpiece and other cultural treasures to the Vatican, but requested French assistance as German forces advanced through Western Europe. The French agreed to house the altarpiece in the Château de Pau, near the Pyrenees, along with works evacuated from French national museums. A little more than two years later, in a misguided strategy to gain political leverage with Hitler, Pierre Laval allowed the Germans to seize the altarpiece. The messy business of French collaboration, too complicated for the film’s Manichean narrative of good western Allies versus the evil Nazis, is excluded entirely.
From Ghent, the film’s action shifts to Paris in 1943, where Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring is handpicking works of art on display at the Jeu de Paume for his own collection and selecting gifts for Hitler. Blanchett’s Claire sits at a desk doing busy work while Göring sips champagne and surveys the paintings with a German art advisor. In some ways, Blanchett channels the real Rose. Like Valland, she wears round, wire-rimmed glasses and simple, practical attire, her hair neatly pulled back in a bun. When Göring’s advisor asks Claire for another champagne glass, she dutifully fetches it from another room but spits in it before returning to the gallery, a gesture that conveys Valland’s contempt for the Nazi looters.
In this sequence, viewers understand the extent of Nazi avarice, personified by the obese, champagne-swigging Göring. Yet missing from the scene, and the film generally, is any indication of who had owned nearly all the looted art—Jews. At the Jeu de Paume, German art experts inspected and inventoried more than 20,000 works of art mostly stolen from homes, galleries, repositories and bank vaults. Persecuted Jews sold thousands of additional pieces under duress to German buyers, including dealers in Hitler’s employ who were amassing works for his planned Führermuseum in Linz, Austria. Valland witnessed all this activity and kept secret records of the content, origins and destinations of German art shipments. The film depicts her important and dangerous espionage but fails to connect the plunder to the broader Nazi seizure of Jewish assets in the Final Solution.
The story then crosses the Atlantic to the United States, where Clooney, as Frank Stokes, is presenting a lecture and slide show to President Roosevelt, aiming to convince him that a corps of art experts should accompany U.S. forces into combat. The presentation allows Stokes to give the first of several ponderous sermons on the value of art to humanity: “While we must and we will, sir, win this war, we must remember the high price that will be paid if the very foundation of modern society is destroyed.” Stokes shows the President a map of Europe and the anticipated paths of Allied forces across continent, and asks him, “Who would make sure that the statue of David is still standing, or the Mona Lisa is still smiling?” Setting aside that the Italians and French very ably protected those particular masterpieces, Stokes’s presentation also distorts the cultural officers’ initial overarching concern, which was protecting historic buildings. In 1943 and early 1944, the MFAA created lists of cultural sites to be spared from bombing, “as far as war allows,” in Eisenhower’s words, and once on the ground, the officers reported and mitigated damage as best they could. The full scope of Nazi looting and Hitler’s Linz museum project were not known until months later, when Allied forces discovered hidden booty in Germany and Austria, and OSS intelligence officers interrogated Nazi leaders, art dealers and experts who worked on the Führermuseum project.
The film’s scenes set in France mostly portray the work of James Rorimer from the summer of 1944 to the spring of 1945, and the professional partnership he gradually established with Rose Valland. Following the Liberation of Paris, Rorimer became the head cultural officer in the Seine section, responsible for inspecting the many châteaux, churches and other historic buildings throughout the Ile-de-France region. There is no mention of Nazi art looting in his diaries and reports of fall 1944; his assignment was to care for buildings. In December 1944, he began working more closely with Valland and his reports start to show greater concern about the impact of Nazi theft. Valland took him to several storage sites with everyday objects seized from Jewish homes during the Occupation. On 22 December, they inspected the grounds of the Foire de Paris, where Rorimer photographed an enormous stash of household objects—furniture, pots and pans, and hundreds of boxes filled with dishes and vases. As for artwork, he noted in his diary they had seen only “a few insignificant paintings.”
The film recreates this inspection, as Simone and Granger walk through a warehouse, between towering stacks of wooden crates and tables filled with dishes, lamps, and vases. Here, we get one of the film’s brief allusions to the persecution of Jews. “What is all this?” Granger asks. “People’s lives,” Simone replies drily. Still confused, he inquires further, “What people?” She shoots him a look suggesting he should know the answer: “Jews.” Granger picks up a painting, a third- or fourth-rate portrait that could have been among the “insignificant” works Rorimer had seen in the warehouse. Here, the film takes an unfortunate creative turn. Granger reads an address on the back of the painting, rue de Nantes, and sets off with great purpose to find the owner, carrying the picture under his arm. When he reaches the apartment, he finds it empty, the front door ajar. The small dwelling has faded, shabby yellow wallpaper and dingy windows. This is not the home of the art collecting elite, but Jews of modest means, who perhaps rented the apartment. There is black anti-Semitic graffiti scrawled on one wall, a star of David, and the German word “Jude” (Jew). Granger sees a hook and an outline on the wallpaper where the portrait most likely hung. He replaces the painting and stands for a moment admiring his work. Simone shows up the door, startling him. “They’re gone,” she tells him. “They’re not coming back.” “Well, Claire,” he responds, showing some irritation, “my job is to find art and return it. This seemed like a good place to start.”
The scene is one of many that reveal Clooney and Heslov’s casual disregard for history. The German graffiti suggests the persecution of Jews in Paris was entirely a German affair. While it is true the Germans controlled the seizure of Jewish-owned furniture and other objects from apartments, the German word “Jude” elides French anti-Semitism and collaboration in the arrests of Jews and the spoliation of their assets. Also, given the housing shortage in late 1944, with bombing victims and returning deportees, laborers and POWs all competing for shelter, other residents mostly likely would have moved into the apartment and displaced any survivors. Moreover, no cultural officer of Rorimer’s stature would have abandoned a painting, even a bad one, in the guise of restitution.
The Monuments Men accurately conveys Valland’s initial refusal to share her information with Rorimer. In shrewd maneuvering that Rorimer later called a “game of cat and mouse,” Valland needed to be sure her carefully gathered intelligence would be placed in hands of an officer with the authority to safeguard the Nazi repositories. The turning point came in March 1945, when Valland learned that Rorimer had been reassigned to Germany. One evening, she invited him to her small apartment in the Latin Quarter. They shared cognac and some little cakes she had prepared, chatting about petty rivalries among Allied officials. After these pleasantries, Valland showed Rorimer materials she had stashed in her bedroom—notes on the Nazi art convoys and photographs of the castles such as Neuschwanstein where he would find treasures from France.
The documented interaction between the two experts is fascinating in its own right, but the film resorts to fiction in an apparent attempt to heighten dramatic tension. Granger tries to convince Simone to share her information by waving in her face a copy of the Nero Decree, Hitler’s scorched earth directive of 19 March 1945, ordering the demolition of German infrastructure that could benefit the Allies—railways, bridges, roads and factories. Clooney and Heslov add the words “archives and art” to this list, prompting Granger to insist the Nazis are poised to destroy “everything.”
We also learn that Granger had found a copy of the Nero Decree on “a train full of art headed for Germany.” In March 1945? Clooney and Heslov can’t be bothered with trifling concerns like chronology, and the fact that the Paris region had been liberated for several months. Beyond the absurdity of that detail, I have yet to see evidence in the wartime correspondence and reports of several MFAA officers, including Stout, Rorimer and Valland, indicating they were aware of the scorched earth decree at that time. The decree becomes a dramatized device to advance the film’s plot, even though at the very least, it did not impel Valland to share her information with Rorimer. Similarly, the film’s depiction of systematic destruction of art in the Heilbronn mine and along roadsides, as German officers dutifully implement the Nero Decree, is entirely fabricated. Granted, Hitler made such destruction possible by issuing the decree, but the Nazis did not destroy art they valued in the repositories. The film’s dramatization exaggerates the impact of cultural concerns on military strategy, avoids serious examination of actual material and human loss, and relies on an oversimplified dichotomy: the Nazis destroyed art, the western Allies preserved it.
The final scenes set in France, moreover, demean the professional partnership between Valland and Rorimer. Simone begins to warm up to Granger when she sees news reports that the MFAA have started finding Nazi art caches in Germany. The conversation gets more personal. Like the actual art experts, he is married and she is not. Simone asks Granger if he is a good husband, to which he replies, “I like to think so.” She observes, “Paris at night finds a lot of good husbands, out…it’s Paris.” After an awkward pause, Granger tells her he is being transferred to Germany. She absorbs the news for a moment and then invites him to dinner at her apartment to celebrate. The next scene depicts the pivotal meeting between Valland and Rorimer when she shared her information, but takes a contrived romantic turn. A much more glamorous Simone greets him, with her hair curled and let down, wearing a sheer dark blue dress and bright red lipstick. When they have finished discussing her materials, she pauses and suggests he stay the night, since they are “in Paris.” An upstanding American family man, Granger declines. The Claire Simone character, in the end, provides a bit of romance in Clooney’s male-centered tale, her feminine French wiles confirming the moral fortitude of the American officer. Given the accuracy of earlier scenes depicting Valland’s work, it is an insulting portrayal of the real Rose, all the more egregious since Valland had a decades-long, committed relationship with a woman named Joyce Heer, next to whom she is buried.
The Monuments Men is not the first major Hollywood film to portray Valland. John Frankenheimer’s adventure film The Train (1964), starring Burt Lancaster, depicts actual events from early August 1944 when the Musées nationaux enlisted the help of French rail workers to stop a train loaded with looted art from reaching Germany. In a far more authentic portrayal than Blanchett’s Claire, Suzanne Flon plays “Mademoiselle Villard,” who implores rail workers serving the Resistance to save “the national heritage” without specifying who, exactly, had owned the stolen paintings. The screenplay, written by Americans Franklin Coen and Frank Davis, was inspired by a brief mention of the episode in Valland’s memoir, Le front de l’Art,  but greatly fictionalizes the struggle between railway resisters and the Germans. Today’s viewers also will be acutely aware that the French stopped a train filled with Jewish-owned art, but not filled with Jewish people and other deportees, a point the film never addresses.
For all these reasons, The Train is problematic for teaching, but it is worth watching. Unlike The Monuments Men, it offers characters with complexity, pitting Lancaster’s Paul Labiche (a rail worker and resister who has no interest in the paintings) against the German art fanatic Colonel Franz von Waldheim, played by Paul Scofield. In their final standoff beside the stopped train, Labiche points a machine gun at the unarmed German officer. Waldheim knows he is beaten and tells Labiche, “A painting means as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape….The paintings are mine, they always will be. Beauty belongs to the men who can appreciate it. They will always belong to me or to a man like me….You couldn’t tell me why you did what you did.” Labiche listens, glances at the bodies of civilian hostages executed by the Germans, and without a word, shoots the officer. The camera cuts to frames of the art-filled crates stamped “Renoir,” “Degas,” “Lautrec,” interspersed with frames of the corpses, to the slow rhythm of the idle train engine. As Labiche slowly walks away from the carnage and the cargo, alone, the film raises questions about the relative value of art and life far more effectively than any scene in The Monuments Men.
Given its many inaccuracies, from minor details to the central plot lines, The Monuments Men is not suitable for classroom use, at any level. The best film for teaching the history of Nazi art looting and the Allied recovery effort remains the 2007 documentary The Rape of Europa, based on writer Lynn Nicholas’s highly regarded book of the same title. Produced by Robert Edsel, the documentary features interviews with Nicholas and academic historians, along with compelling first-hand accounts told by several MFAA veterans.
Clooney’s film has had a positive impact in some ways, by raising public awareness of the history of the MFAA and demonstrating its current relevance to ongoing cultural property disputes over Nazi-era art. One hopes the film has inspired the most intellectually curious viewers to seek out rigorous, evidence-based histories. On its own, The Monuments Men is entertainment, and nothing more.
George Clooney, Director, The Monuments Men, 2014, Color, 118 min, USA, Germany, Columbia Pictures, Fox 2000 Pictures, Smokehouse Pictures, Obelisk Productions, Sutdio Babelsberg.
- See the updated information on the German government’s Lost Art Internet database at http://www.lostart.de/Webs/DE/Datenbank/KunstfundMuenchen.html
- The Monuments Men, directed by George Clooney (Columbia Pictures, 2014); Robert Edsel, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History (New York: Center Street, 2010). Although Edsel incorporates some archival and secondary source research, he also invents dialogue and makes some serious errors, including a reference to “the post-occupation government of André Malraux.” (p. 410) The book has popular appeal but is not suitable for classroom use.
- For box office and home video sales, see the-numbers.com/movie/Monuments-Men-The#tab=summary. Review summaries and excerpts available at http://www.metacritic.com/movie/the-monuments-men, http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_monuments_men/.
- Adam Markovitz, “George Clooney talks ‘The Monuments Men,’” Entertainment Weekly, 12 August 2013, http://insidemovies.ew.com/2013/08/12/george-clooney-monuments-men-2/.
- John Hiscock, “George Clooney on The Monuments Men: ‘We Wanted to create an Epic,’” Telegraph, 14 February 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/10552882/George-Clooney-on-The-Monuments-Men-We-wanted-to-make-an-epic.html.
- Lynn Nicholas, The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 85; Jaujard to Hautecoeur, 7 August 1941, French national archives (AN) 3W/78; Jaujard deposition in trial of Abel Bonnard, 4 May 1959, AN 3W/82.
- Eisenhower directive to commanders, 29 December 1943, U.S. National Archives, RG 239.
- For example, the detailed interrogation report for Hermann Voss, 15 September 1945, U.S. National Archives, RG 239.
- Rorimer papers, diary entry of 22 December 1944, and Rorimer photographs, all in National Gallery of Art archives, Series J1.
- See Annette Wieviorka and Floriane Azoulay, Le pillage des appartements et son indemnisation (Paris: La Documentation Française, 2000), 10-19; Leora Auslander, “Coming Home? Jews in Postwar Paris,” Journal of Contemporary History 40:2 (April 2005), 237-259.
- Rorimer, Survival, 111.
- Ibid., 111-114; Valland, Le front de l’Art: Défense des collections françaises, 1939-1945 (Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1997), 218-219.
- A fanatical Gauleiter in Austria came close to destroying the contents of the Alt Aussee salt mine, but was stopped by mine officials and miners who enlisted the help of SS officer Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the Reich Security Main Office.
- Corinne Bouchoux, Rose Valland: La résistance au musée (La Crèche: Geste éditions, 2006), 98-99.
- The Train, directed by John Frankenheimer (MGM Studios, 1964).
- Valland, Le front de l’Art. The memoir was first published in 1961.
- The Rape of Europa, directed by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham (Actual Films, 2007).