According to Gardner’sArt Through The Ages, "One of the largest and most admired Flemish altarpieces of the 15th century is the Ghent Altarpiece in the Cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent… [It] celebrates the whole Christian cycle from the Fall to the Redemption, presenting the Church triumphant in heavenly Jerusalem. The uncanny naturalism and the precise rendering, in the miniaturist tradition, make the great event as concrete and credible as possible to the observer. The realism is so saturated with symbolism that we almost think of it as a kind of superreality or ‘surrealism’, for what is given to the eye is more than the eye can report." And – on top of all that – the Ghent Altarpiece is just downright pretty.
Given this description, it’s no wonder the Ghent Altarpiece would attract the attention of Adolph Hitler. Now when you think of Der Führer, art connoisseur isn’t usually the first term that comes to mind. Rather, it’s usually preceded by stuff like “madman” or “monster” or “genocidal maniac.” But by his own estimation, and despite the fact that he himself had been denied admission to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts for lack of talent, Hitler considered himself a man who knew good art when he saw it. So naturally, once he got around to trying to take over the world, Hitler thought it only proper that he should own every piece of "good" art that had ever been produced. To this effect, in 1940, he commissioned The Reichsleiter Rosenberg Institute for the Occupied Territories to basically loot Europe’s museums and private collections. They brought the stuff Hitler approved of – works by the Old Masters like the Ghent Altarpiece – back to Germany, and simply burned the modern art he considered degenerate.
Of course, once word began to spread about what was going on, art historians and professors around the globe began to try and save what they could from the Nazi’s clutches. However, it became obvious pretty quickly that they were going to need the military’s help in recapturing the tens of thousands of pieces of art the German army had already absconded with. After some intense lobbying, President Roosevelt was convinced to establish what eventually became the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program – a branch of the armed forces dedicated to protecting cultural monuments from war damage (up to that point, Allied bombers and tanks hadn’t been overly concerned if they razed a few museums along with their intended targets) and to finding and returning stolen works of art.
The Monuments Men, George Clooney’s new film which he both directed and stars in, tells the story of a handful of these historians as they search for clues as to the location of the pilfered treasures, in particular Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges and The Ghent Altarpiece. It’s a journey that takes them through basic training (despite the advanced age of many of the men), into occupied Paris, and finally onto the front lines of the war, where they must risk their lives like any other soldier. It’s an undeniably interesting piece of history, detailing as it does the nearly forgotten tale of men who were willing to place themselves in mortal danger to protect objects many would consider to be disposable.
Unfortunately, while the true story behind the film is fascinating, the movie itself doesn’t quite live up to the potential of the tale. Along with Clooney, the film boasts an impressive cast of veteran headliners (Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett) and reliable familiar faces (Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville) – and none of them are bad in their roles. The problem is, they’re not particularly good either. In what had to be a conscious decision, all of the Monuments Men
are played in a overly-subdued manner, as if the subject matter were so weighty that no hint of personality should be allowed to seep through for fear of belittling it. Only Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville, whose recovering alcoholic sees the mission as a shot at redemption, appears to have been given any real character arc in the film. But as for the rest, their readings are so purposely bland, you could switch the actors around in any given scene and it wouldn’t matter. That’s a pretty unforgivable offense when you’ve got screen presences like Murray and Goodman in your film.
Perhaps worse, though, is that the film never effectively communicates why the mission of the Monuments Men was so important. Oh, it tells you why, for sure; it seems like every fifteen minutes or so, Clooney the actor gives a little speech explaining how art represents the cultural heritage of mankind and the record of our aspirations as a species, and how it’s worth the effort to protect and save these works for future generations even if doing so puts your own life at risk. What Clooney the director doesn’t do, however, is make you feel it.
In a letter addressed to the artists of the world, Pope John Paul II wrote:
In short, the creation of art is one of the ways in which we mirror God, and to look upon the best of these created works – pieces like the Ghent Altarpiece – is to see something of God in the world. Because Clooney either doesn’t understand this dimension of art, or he just doesn’t know how to translate such an understanding to the screen, The Monuments Men doesn’t really make a convincing argument for its main theme. As well made as the film is, rather than relating the tale of heroic men fighting to save the presence of God in a world which sorely needs it, the film just feels like a story about a bunch of middle aged guys willing to die for some pretty pictures.
And that’s a shame, because the story of the Monuments Men is worth telling, and for the subject matter alone the movie is an okay watch – definitely worth an evening’s time when it shows up on video. It’s just that it should be so much more. Sadly, while the history behind the film is engrossing, the movie itself, like much of the acting it contains, falls a little flat.
In a world he didn’t create, in a time he didn’t choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by… watching movies. When he’s not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ives spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.