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  • Writer's pictureSamantha Cross

Archives in the Movies: The Monuments Men

One of the little tidbits you pick up as you navigate the world of academia, specifically when studying History, is that evil regimes like fascists and communists and Nazis love to keep records. Every entry in a ledger is a justification of your position and authority. Every file kept, every picture taken, proof of existence and the prevailing power structure's ability to maintain control. This practice of record-keeping is then folded in with other tried and true methods of establishing oneself as the dominant political force: wipe out the previous regime's political actors, flood the populace with your personal flavor of indoctrination, and erase all cultural evidence of those that preceded your rise to power by turning them into villains and scapegoats for society's woes.

Wow, that sounds familiar, doesn't it? A really timely and hot take from your friendly neighborhood archivist, right?

My point, as far as this article is concerned, is that the artistic and historical touchstones of a culture are often the first targets to be confiscated, banned, or destroyed - sometimes all three. The erasure of cultures and societies starts with their longest lasting artifacts, which the 2014 movie The Monuments Men attempts to convey, though it often falls short in that regard when it tries to be a Hollywood war movie.

Adapted for the screen from the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, the movie, directed by and starring George Clooney along with Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, and Jean Dujardin, tries to condense the extraordinary work of the real life Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) organization into a decent, yet disjointed story spanning the last years of WWII. The Monuments Men are primarily tasked with maintaining and preserving historically significant art and structures ravaged by war while also attempting to recover art stolen by the Nazis from museums and private collections.

Once the Monuments Men are assembled, a paltry 8-man band when the real life program had dozens of experts involved, they're quickly split into separate units to go after pieces of art deemed necessary to recover. Specifically, the movie shifts its narrative focus towards a sculpture of the Madonna of Bruges by Michelangelo and the Ghent Altarpiece, aka the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. As the film ramps up the stakes, namely that the Nazis are destroying the stolen art in the wake of losing the war, the units have a personal investment in recovering the pieces and fulfilling the promise of the group's creation. If you're noticing a heavily Christianized theme here considering the time period in question, then don't worry, it just means you're paying attention more than the movie does.

One of the separate storylines involves Matt Damon's James Granger, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, trying to convince Cate Blanchett's Claire Simone to reveal the location of the art stolen during her time "collaborating" with the Nazis at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris. The movie never specifies Claire's position at the museum, though wikis either classify her as a curator or an archivist, which I'm going to run with since it's the closest I'm going to get as confirmation. As we see early on in the film, Claire is a collaborator as a means of supplying information to the French Resistance and documenting the provenance of the art pilfered and/or destroyed by the Nazis. When she's initially approached by Granger and asked to reveal what she knows, she's reluctant to do so, suspecting that the primarily American unit will merely take the art for themselves. It's only towards the end of the film that she finally trusts Granger enough to show him her files as a well as a meticulously kept ledger of the art she documented.

It's worth noting that Claire Simone is based on real life art historian, member of the French Resistance, and decorated veteran of the French military, Captain Rose Valland. During her time at the Jeu de Paume, which acted as a central storage and sorting depot for the Nazis, Valland was able to gather information about the roughly 20,000 pieces of stolen artwork that passed through the museum as well as maintain records of the train schedules and routes of transportation for the French Resistance. It was due to Valland's efforts that so many pieces of French art were recovered and returned.

Rose Valland (left) and Cate Blanchett as Claire Simone (right)

While the movie does acknowledge the heroic risks taken by Claire, the majority of her time on screen is dedicated to Granger making tepid entreaties for her to trust him. The problem is the episodic structure of the film. In most cases, the trust-building between Claire and Granger would fill an entire act considering it took months for Granger's real life counterpart to get Rose Valland to entrust him with her records. The few scenes we have between the two only get half-way through what would be a traditional story arc before the unearned payoff of Claire's ledger handed over to Granger. The scenes between them are also meant to act as a well-meaning but tonally awkward lamentation of the artwork and belongings stolen from Jewish homes. When Granger returns a piece of art to a ransacked, looted, and defaced Jewish home it's meant as a symbolic gesture to Claire that Granger and his unit are only trying to return the art to it the rightful owners.

It's a scene that rings hollow when one realizes that the United States did engage in art theft during the European theater of WWII. At least 200 German paintings were confiscated and shipped to the states after the war. In protest of the military's seizure of art, members of the signed the Weisbaden Manifesto, a document rejecting the removal of cultural items as the spoils of war. For all of the movie's nostalgia and heavy-handed speeches about the value and cultural significance of artwork, it conveniently ignores the fact that the US participated in the same actions as the Nazis and the Russians. It wasn't until 1948 that President Truman ordered the art returned.

So, Claire and Rose were right to be suspicious and the movie missed out on some actual historical commentary. And the filmmakers decided to leave out the fact that Claire's real life counterpart was a lesbian in favor of some awkward semi-romantic moments between Blanchett and Damon that literally lead nowhere.

Anyway, The Monuments Men isn't the greatest movie set during WWII, but it does cover an area of history often overlooked by popular culture in favor of the high drama of the many battlefronts. Plus, any excuse to watch Nazis get demolished. And while the film is well-meaning, it falls short of truly conveying the cultural significance and loss of the European Jewish community under Hitler's regime. The one aspect of history it gets right, however, is the emphasis on records and their importance to the recovery efforts that are still happening in the modern day.


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