Art imitating art: George Clooney, centre, co-wrote, directed and acts in 'The Monuments Men', about the Allied armies unit set up to protect culture from war damage
They were the unlikeliest of second world war “heroes” – middle-aged art historians, curators and archivists more familiar with Raphael than a revolver. They risked their lives to rescue the world’s greatest works of art from the Nazis, eventually restoring the spoils of war to the national museums, churches and private owners from where they had been plundered.
Now they are to receive long-overdue recognition with a forthcoming major film called The Monuments Men. Hollywood star, George Clooney, not only acts in it, but he has directed and co-written the film with Grant Heslov, his producing partner on the Oscar-winning Argo, among other acclaimed collaborations.
The story is inspired by a 2009 non-fiction book of the same title. Author Robert M Edsel, with Bret Witter, pieced together what they describe as history’s “greatest theft” – the Nazi confiscation of an astonishing 5m cultural artefacts – and its “greatest treasure hunt”, by a unit of museum directors and art scholars who tracked down hundreds of thousands of works to their hiding-places. These millions of objects even exclude those retrieved by the Red Army in eastern Europe and East Germany.
The monuments, fine arts and archives (MFAA) section of the Allied armies served from 1943 until 1951. Its mission was not only to rescue objects, but also to protect monuments, churches and other jewels of European culture from war damage and its aftermath. Western Allies discovered more than 1,000 repositories in southern Germany, crammed with millions of treasures from stained glass to manuscripts. Such was the scale of that operation that it took six years to complete. By the end of the war, there were about 60 men and women serving in MFAA, most of them American or British. Eventually, the numbers rose to around 350 from 13 nations.
Although not actually participating in combat, just being on a porous front line entailed dangers from isolated German units or snipers, and even when the shooting had ceased, there were risks of mines and booby traps.
Edsel observes that the creation of this unit marked the first time that an army fought a war while comprehensively attempting to mitigate cultural damage.
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Grant Heslov happened to pick up the book while he and Clooney were shooting another film. A year later, he was still impressed by its extraordinary tale.
Speaking to the Financial Times, he recalls: “We were talking about what to do next… I brought it up with George. I reread it. He read it.”
They immediately decided it would make a great film. He adds: “It is a piece of second world war history we knew nothing about. We liked the idea of these fish-out-of-water guys who are really too old to be in combat” who had a vital mission that needed their expertise.
Artworks recovered at Neuschwanstein Castle
The two men were astonished to discover that the book’s film rights had not been snapped up and they quickly enlisted Edsel as their consultant. He says: “In consulting with George and Grant, I wanted to convey who these people were, what they achieved, and why they believed risking their lives to save art was important.
“We learn about the creation of cultural preservation officers – a new kind of soldier charged with saving, not destroying, and that it was the brainchild of monuments man George Stout,” the brilliant head of conservation at the Fogg Museum at Harvard University.
President Roosevelt authorised the creation of MFAA and General Eisenhower then empowered them. Edsel says: “Just a handful of these monuments men and one woman – the most unlikely of spies – played crucial roles [in saving many] of civilisation’s most beautiful … cultural treasures.”
He adds: “Our film brings to the fore a fascinating question… ‘Is art worth a life?’” He believes the film gives an answer. Heslov puts it another way: “To what degree is it important to take care of monuments and the art of man? That’s the question we try to address in the film.”
Clooney’s screen character – who sports a moustache – was inspired by Stout, who was in his late 40s when he persuaded museum and military authorities to set up a professional art conservation corps. He was one of the first MFAA men to land in Normandy and, while the Allies fought through France, Belgium and Germany, he was on front lines helping to rescue cultural treasures.
His character says in the film: “They tell us ‘who cares about art?’ But they’re wrong. It is the exact reason that we’re fighting – for culture, for a way of life.”
As Roosevelt put it in 1941: “Whatever these paintings may have been to men who looked at them a generation back, today they are not only works of art. Today they are the symbols of the human spirit.”
Hermann Göring, Hitler’s art-acquisitive second-in-command, was condemned as a war criminal at Nuremberg in 1946. In his interviews, he argued: “Of all the charges … against me, the so-called looting of art treasures by me has caused me the most anguish … During a war, everybody loots a little bit.”
Looted masterpieces shown in the film include Belgium’s most famous 15th-century treasure, Van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, and Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna, the marble sculpture of Mary and the infant Jesus removed by German soldiers from the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Bruges. They were among art tracked down to the salt mines of Altaussee in Austria. Most such masterpieces were destined for the museum Hitler planned for the Austrian city of Linz – vindicating his youthful rejection from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Collections across Europe were systematically confiscated by the Third Reich.
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Edsel’s interest in the subject began in 1996 as “a curiosity”. A meeting with 98-year-old S. Lane Faison, Jr, an MFAA officer who interrogated Nazis involved with cultural looting, inspired him. He went on to write The Monuments Men and, earlier this year, Saving Italy, about a similar group on the Italian front. He also chairs the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, a not-for-profit foundation that he established in 2007.
The work of the Monuments Men continues as hundreds of thousands of looted objects and documents remain missing. Tens of thousands of works were destroyed either by war damage or deliberately, burned by stormtroopers before British troops could save them.
Heslov believes that “any art looted” – assuming the rightful owners can be proved – “should be repatriated, without a doubt”.
Asked why the film has changed some of the names of the real-life characters, he says: “You’ve got to have a little artistic licence. These guys are real, but it’s a movie and you’ve got to be able to have a little room.”
He says of Clooney’s character: “He’s a real leader, but he’s humble and modest. He’s thrown into this thing and he has to take charge.”
Beyond Clooney, the A-list cast includes Matt Damon, whose character is based on James Rorimer, a “bulldog” Metropolitan Museum curator. Sent to Saint-Lô in northwestern France, shortly after it was captured by the Allies in 1944, he found a city in ruins, the dead lying unburied among the rubble. He reported that, parts of the church that had not been destroyed were “filled with grenades, smoke bombs… booby traps on the pulpit and on the altar”. His inventory of destroyed objects included illuminated manuscripts dating back to the 11th century. In Germany the following year, he helped to discover repositories of hidden treasures, including French loot housed in Neuschwanstein Castle, and evacuated German art in the Heilbronn mines.
Cate Blanchett’s character is based on Rose Valland, an art historian and French resistance member who traced thousands of stolen works. As an unassuming volunteer at the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris, Valland spied on the Nazis over their four-year occupation – obtaining crucial clues to the location of France’s looted art
Secret hoard stuns art world
The residence of Cornelius Gurlitt
While the monuments men can claim to have played a critical role in the repatriation of much of the art stolen during the second world war, even they would have been astonished by the recent discovery of a secret hoard of 1,400 artworks that were last seen in the 1930s and 1940s. The trove of pictures by great masters, including Matisse and Picasso, was thought to have been destroyed in the war. Yet there it was in a dilapidated flat in Munich. Reports suggest that the financial value is around €1bn.
The biggest single artistic find of the postwar era sparked headlines worldwide last month, but in fact the discovery was made in 2012, when tax authorities investigated Cornelius Gurlitt, the reclusive son of a 1930s art dealer who operated on behalf of the Nazis. The son came to their attention after customs officials, in a routine search during a train journey from Switzerland to Munich, found him carrying a large amount of cash. Investigators obtained a search warrant for his home and stumbled across paintings purchased by Gurlitt’s father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, who was very close to the German high command.
These were among modern works that the Nazis had denigrated as “degenerate”, banned for being un-German or by Jewish artists. Other artworks in the trove include a Paul Klee, Max Beckmann and Emil Nolde, as well as earlier masters.
A Matisse painting is said to have belonged to Paul Rosenberg, the renowned French art dealer, who represented the artist, along with Picasso and Braque. His granddaughter is Anne Sinclair, French TV journalist and former wife of Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
Claims for restitution are now expected from around the world.