Sunday, March 2, 2014

I just saw George Clooney’s Monuments Men. I am deeply disappointed in the movie.   If you read the reviews of the movie, you will find that the prevailing opinion is that the movie was mediocre at best. One critic reports that the film  offers up a mostly mediocre mixture of art connoisseurs traipsing around Europe trying to secure priceless works before the Nazis set everything ablaze, and very superficial bonding between the men who are sometimes put in life-threatening situations.”

However, my disappointment does not come from the poor character development, nor the heavy handed emotional pleas that come from Clooney’s character.  My disappointment stems from the script itself. 

The script was penned in part by Clooney himself. However, it is quite obvious that his reading of the book he was basing the script from was profoundly light. There are multiple passages within the book that would have made marvelous film scenes. However, these passages are ignored.  While this scenario is often the case when creating a film script from a book, this case is unique.  Clooney did not just ignore key passages; he created new scenes that were quite bluntly not nearly as compelling as the passages he ignored.

Consider the plot device used in the movie: the theft of the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo from Bruge.  Clooney staged a scene where Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) of the British Army attempts to arrange the safety of a Belgian church with valuable artwork and is killed attempting to prevent the Nazi’s from stealing the statue.  However, in the book, the Madonna is stolen, and Monuments Man Ronald Balfour earnestly searches for it while performing other preservation efforts. While working with German citizens on safeguarding artifacts from the German town of Cleves while investigating a lead on the Madonna, he is killed by a landmine.

This passage explores the dedication of the Monuments men, the conditions the men faced, as well as the reality of human interactions between those dedicated to saving humanity, even those who were German. It would have been dramatic and compelling on screen.

Additionally, Clooney played the “all German’s were Nazi’s” card, which in addition to being insulting and not truthful shows his complete disregard for the source material he used for his script.  Factually,  much French art was saved by the German (and Nazi officer) Count Wolff- Metternich. Working within the Nazi party, and stationed in Paris, he was responsible for delaying and stopping thousands of pieces from being transferred out of France.  The Hague Convention recognized his convictions and resulting efforts in 1954. This was not mentioned in the movie.  Instead, Clooney focused singularly on Rose Valland, a much more sympathetic figure as she was French and had ties to the resistance. Rose's story was heavily featured in the film, and could have (perhaps should have been) the focus of the film in the first place.

Another example of ignoring the grey that came from operating under Nazi hegemony comes in the form of the French Scholar, a Nazi officer, depicted in Clooney’s film.  This character  was portrayed as being a righteous Nazi and a thief of multiple priceless paintings.  Clooney showed this man, (granted, a compilation of many true-to-life Nazi men) sitting in his house surrounded by stolen paintings by masters. The scholar, indeed the son-in-law to a local German dentist, catalogued every piece of stolen artwork, albeit while assisting in the transfer of “acquired art”.  His bound book provided the titles, sizes, exchange rates, prices and original owners of art that came through the Louvre.  In fact, he explained to the Monuments men the inner workings of the Nazi party, and was invaluable to the effort.  His reasons for helping the Americans were assumed to be for saf epassage for his family, but when told the Monuments Men could not do that, he shared his information anyway. The scene would have raised questions about the motivations and reality of humanity in times of war.  

Perhaps Clooney was not comfortable with the varying levels of grey people had to wade through during World War two. Perhaps, intellectually he did not understand that there is no good and bad, black and white in times of war; that people survived any way they could, because creatively, this would have added depth and humanity to an otherwise drab plot. Perhaps, he simply applied current situational ethics to a time and place he cannot understand. Regardless of the reason, the results were disappointing.

Scenes such as the one with the former Nazi officer, where on one hand he tried to save, and ultimately did save art- by helping the Allies, and on the other was a Nazi officer who greased the wheels of the Nazi party to take art out of the country via train, would have also remained true to the book used for source material, and would explore the varying dimensions and situations the Monument Men faced in their quest. Edsel’s work clearly showed the realization that those working in the field came to: that not all Germans were Nazi’s and even then, there were varying types. Clooney’s simplistic version perpetuates the stereotype of German people during the war years.

To include every important or dramatic scene from Edsel’s work would have been impossible in a film with a running time of less than three hours.  However, key passages from the book were not included. Instead, Clooney manufactured new scenes that were simply not as compelling. Scenes were Germans assisted the Allies in saving their monuments would have been compelling and truthful.  The source material had so much unrealized potential for a film.

Perhaps someone will attempt it again. Meanwhile, there is a great film to be made about Rose Valland, the woman who single handedly saved 60,000 world of art in France. A book, written by French Senator Corinne Bouchoux, was originally published in France in 2006, shares this amazing story.


Papa & Gramma said...

I agree--not the best movie in the world, but since I haven't read the book yet, I have no basis for comparison to the facts. I just enjoyed the story and the history and ignored the superficial parts of the script and the characters. It won't win any awards, but I'm still glad I saw it. Now I must read the book!

the old man in south texas said...

What do you expect from Hollywood anyway? and a George Clooney movie at that. Besides the movie makers always change or make something up to make it more Hollywood like an explosion here, a car crash there to keep the interest of the movie goers. Heaven forbid they stick to the book page by page.

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