History and fiction
Often, the historical reality doesn’t fit neatly into the two hours of a film narrative.
Ridley Scott’s creative direction in “The Gladiator” apparently so angered the historians he had hired for supervision that they walked away from production. Still, the film enjoys a mostly positive critical consensus.
“Schindler’s List,” likewise, has been criticized by some historians but remains exalted by the majority of film critics.
Released earlier this year, “Monuments Men” is of the same family as those movies, if not the same genus. Based on a true story and filled with an all-star cast (George Clooney, John Goodman, Bill Murray and Matt Damon among others), it follows a group of Allied art-collectors and scholars turned soldiers as they attempt to recover priceless art stolen by the Nazis on the Western European front during the last days of the war.
Its subject matter has of course fascinated historians for years, but the film takes a decidedly nostalgic turn rather quickly and bends more than a few of the facts — which is fine if you’re looking for a fun, heartening film. The jokes aren’t cynical; the score is deliberately sentimental.
The performances also please throughout, but the film has a few important flaws. For one, an overarching narrative fails to develop, and the group (made up of characters only loosely based on their real-life counterparts) is left chasing several vague goals until the end when an abrupt resolution appears seemingly from nowhere.
Worse though, is the film’s bungling of its central question: Can art be more important than human life?
The Monuments Men frequently encounter opposition when they explain their mission to field officers, who understandably are unwilling to put Allied lives in danger for the sake of preserving art. Stokes, the Monuments Men’s leader himself, warns that none of them should die protecting a piece of art.
Yet two of the outfit do die, which oddly caused Stokes to reconsider that view. Both speeches seem half-hearted though, and given the otherwise affected nature of the movie, this seems more like a lapse in writing than an attempt at conflicted nuance.
“The Rape of Europa,” meanwhile, attempts to deal with the same question from a much different approach. In this fascinating — and at times quite dark — documentary, the whole of Europe and the fight to protect its art from the Nazis is shown. The inspirations for several of the characters in “Monuments Men” even appear.
It begins with context. Hitler’s well-known aspirations as an artist and his infatuation with the Renaissance no doubt contributed to the Nazi’s widespread theft of European art. With his rise to power in the 1930’s, his own personal artistic tastes and theories were thrust on a German population.
Behind Hitler’s lead, much of the German elite command soon took up art collecting and Goering’s wholesale attitude towards accruement serves as the prime instance of heedless Nazi greed coupled with philistinism.
Soon, the scale increased dramatically. The goal of a great deal of this systematic theft, or as one expert calls it, “industrial plundering,” was to fill a national German museum to be built in Linz, site of the Third Reich’s proposed imperial city. A total of more than 22,000 items would end up being taken into Germany from occupied Paris alone, and that was only before furniture from vacated apartments began to be shipped off as well.
As presented in the documentary, the survival of a great deal of Europe’s art was due to equal parts foresight (many artworks were removed and hidden before invasion), Allied efforts at recovery and pure luck.
By its end, the film offers a more forceful argument than “Monuments Men” does for why Allied forces should have protected art. Without art, without a record of beauty, cultures vanish, and so it remains inseparable from life. It’s a sentiment indeed echoed by Stokes, but not with enough conviction to be convincing.