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Film / The Monuments Men

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The Monuments Men is a 2014 War Movie directed by George Clooney and starring himself, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Cate Blanchett. It is based on the history book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel. Alexandre Desplat composed the score.

The story involves the adventures of the US Army's World War II Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, aka "The Monuments Men." They were a collection of various art experts who were tasked to minimize damage to works of art and fine architecture during combat and to find and recover as many as possible pieces of art stolen by the forces of Nazi Germany in their conquest of Europe.

To that task, Frank Stokes assembles an elite team of experts to accomplish this mission. However, they find their work complicated by their own combat units who hardly see the point of risking their own lives being delicate around art and the Nazis who determined to keep their loot or destroy it if they are defeated. Furthermore, they have to deal with natives like French curator Claire Simone who suspect the US wants to steal the art for themselves and the Soviets who definitely want to do that as reparations for the horrors they have suffered in that war.

This film is a clear Hollywood History dramatization of the story and anyone who wants to see a film for an accurate account should see the Documentary, The Rape of Europa.

The Monuments Men provides examples of:

  • Actor Allusion:
  • Ambiguously Jewish: Epstein. Although he doesn't display any stereotypically "Jewish" traits, it's easy to read between the lines when he mentions that his family immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1938 and his grandfather being sent to Dachau. Also, during the ending montage, he's the one shown returning a Torah to a synagogue.
  • Anti-Villain: The Soviet commander of the Trophy Brigade, yes, he is taking the art back to the Soviet Union rather than return it to its original owners and that's basically stealing, but he is still shown ensuring his men show the art a great deal of care and respect and doesn't seem too bothered by the fact that the protagonists beat him to the last stockpile.
  • Artistic License – Art: Stokes gives a lecture to Roosevelt and identifies a work by "Da Vinci", rather than Leonardo. This is a classic post-The Da Vinci Code mistake that no art historian — and certainly none living in the 1940s — would have made. The name of the artist was Leonardo and he was born in the town of Vinci — Leonardo Da Vinci means "Leonardo, of Vinci".
  • The Atoner: Jeffries regards his WW2 service as making up for his alcoholism, which has ruined his reputation and disgraced his father. His father even writes to Stokes, thanking him for giving his son the chance to redeem himself.
  • Avengers Assemble: A montage of the Monuments Men being recruited from their civilian occupations, intercut with them being issued their military uniforms and equipment.
  • Bilingual Backfire: The Allies capture a group of Germans who were transporting stolen art to Germany. The German-American refugee soldier Epstein quietly listens on as the Germans' captain and his XO (who switched uniforms before being captured) talk about where they took it. Then Epstein walks up, and in fluent German promises the captain that he'll give Hitler his regards when they take Berlin.
  • Book Ends: Stokes briefs President Roosevelt on the need for the Monuments Men, and President Truman on what they achieved.
  • Broken Bird: Claire is clearly traumatized by not only the occupation of her city and her museum by the Nazis but the recent death of her brother. Most of the job with her is just getting her to understand that the Monuments Men will return the stolen art and not merely take it for themselves like the Russians are.
  • Burn Baby Burn: When the Nazis destroy an art depository with flamethrowers, Portrait of a Young Man by Raphael is prominently displayed as it burns.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: The Cool and Unusual Punishment Stokes has for the Nazi Officer who was destroying art and running a Death Camp: that Stokes will have a smoke, and remember it when he is back in New York City on an perfectly ordinary day reading the tiny newspaper sidebar story about the Nazi being executed for war crimes, and never think of the officer again. He twists the knife in the Nazi by pointing out that he will do this over the coffee and bagel he has every morning at a Jewish deli.
  • Captain Obvious: Everyone telling Granger not to move after he steps on a mine.
  • Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys: Defied by Claire Simone in the prison scene.
    Granger: If it wasn't for us, you'd be speaking German right now.
    Simone: Wrong. If it wasn't for you, I'd be dead right now, but I would still speak French.
  • Child Soldiers: The sniper firing at two of the Monuments Men in one scene is revealed to be a young child. As this was late in the war and Germany was getting desperate, this makes sense. A POW camp shown later has a number of child soldiers.
  • Composite Character: The film's main characters of the unit number only eight. In reality, the program consisted of 400 men.
  • Counting to Three: Granger steps off the mine in two, because he's too scared to wait for three.
  • Creator Cameo:
    • Alexandre Desplat not only composed the score but also appears onscreen as a member of the Resistance in several scenes (he plays Emile, who helps Granger get to Paris).
    • George Clooney's producing partner Grant Heslov plays a doctor in one scene.
  • Cultured Warrior: The Monuments Men are recruited precisely because they are cultured, while the Nazis like to think they are this trope for real, although they are just a bunch of thieving military brutes.
  • Dirty Communists: The Monument Men soon find them their other adversaries considering they are looking for art to keep for themselves. However, the Men do admit that after all the horrors the Russians suffered in the war, they can't blame them for a bit of payback from the Germans in taking their art in revenge. In the scene where we see them seizing the art, they do at least treat it with care, the soldiers being warned to only handle the frames since the paintings are irreplaceable.
  • Dramatic Irony:
    • Stokes asks for permission to continue searching for the Raphael painting, Portrait of a Young Man, in the belief that it survived the war. The painting is shown being destroyed by the Nazis earlier in the movie.
    • In his first lecture Stokes states that the war will be over in a few months once the Allies invade, when it actually lasts another year.
  • Egopolis: References are made to Hitler's proposed "Führermuseum" near his birthplace in Austria.
  • Everybody Smokes: Aside from Savitz and that horse.
  • Evil Counterpart: the Trophy Brigade, the Monuments Men's Soviet counterparts, who don't give back the art they take.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Claire reads about the arrest of Viktor Stahl as a small story buried within her newspaper, while drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette at a cafe. See the But for Me, It Was Tuesday entry.
    • Stokes looking at the Blood-Stained Letter Jeffries is narrating in voiceover cues the audience to his death just before we see it happen.
    • Averted with Preston Savitz who clearly says early in the film that he hopes to shoot someone, but never does.
  • Four Lines, All Waiting: A major criticism is the team being split into pairs, resulting in none of the four storylines getting the time they need to be really engaging.
  • Friendship Moment
    • Despite their earlier animosity, Savitz plays the record sent by Campbell's daughter and grandchildren over the camp PA system.
    • The Monuments Men refuse to leave when Granger has to step off the mine.
  • Fun with Subtitles: Granger's not-very-good French is translated exactly into English.
  • Graceful Loser: The Russian leader of the "trophy brigade", once he finds the American flag in front of the salt mine.
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: The Men tear the last mine apart trying to find the last panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, only to find it wrapped in a blanket and being used as a table.
  • Hollywood History: The movie is a fairly Broad Strokes presentation of the war and the Monuments Men project, which in real life was composed of far more than just eight men (it was actually around 400, as befit such a truly massive project).
    • Stout (Stokes in the film) was not directly involved with the creation of the Monuments Men, although his efforts to preserve the art of occupied Europe had been an important inspiration as he had proposed something similar prior to 1943, before invasion was even an issue.
    • The Germans did not destroy the art held in the mines. The Nero Decree did not mention archives or art at all. In fact Hitler specifically ordered that all the art be left to German museums upon his death. While the Germans did destroy some art, it was all art they considered "degenerate", which does not cover most of the art depicted in the film (though Picasso's were indeed on the list), and the mines were reserved for art they intended to keep. Hitler actually considered the Ghent Altarpiece an example of "Aryan genius". In addition, there is little evidence that the Monuments Men knew of the Decree.
      • The film seems to leave the impression that the top generals were boorish, greedy fools for focusing on the captured German gold in the mine and not the art. In point of fact, even with the incalculable cultural value the art possessed, the seizure of the gold was vastly more important in winning the war. By capturing the gold of the Reichsbank, the Allies had essentially seized Germany's bank account and had starved the Nazi regime of the hard currency reserves it desperately needed to prop up the German economy and continue what little fighting it could.
    • Several names and personalities were changed and at least one character — the Frenchman Jean-Claude Clermont — outright made up for the movie. Which slightly undermines the impact of his death.
    • Claire Simone is based on Rose Valland, and while she and Rorimer did indeed work closely together, she was a lesbian, and the romantic subplot was made up for the movie. Donald Jeffries was based on Ronald Balfour, who was indeed killed, but in different circumstances unconnected to the Madonna of Bruges.
    • Much of the time the Monuments Men had to march on foot or were forced to hitch rides. In many cases they got little help from the military. However, this is clearly referenced in the film.
    • The Monuments Men had several days to clear out the Altausee mine before the territory was handed over to the Russians.
    • The movie completely ignores a crucial debate concerning the rescued art: Soon after the war, US authorities ordered over 200 priceless works of art be shipped to the United States. The Monuments Men, en masse, signed a declaration, called the Weisbaden Manifesto (after the city and Allied military base of Wiesbaden where the artworks were first centrally depoted for final disposition), protesting the decision. They claimed that whatever the true intentions of the US military, it could not help but be seen as trophy taking on the level of the Soviets or even Hitler. The decision would not be rescinded until 1948.
  • Hope Spot: Jeffries sneaks into German-occupied Bruges to ensure the safety of Michelangelo's Madonna and Child, and is relieved to discover the statue untouched by bombing or looting. Then a Nazi colonel enters the church to steal it at gunpoint.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Stokes gripes over the flippancy of the Soviets naming their art unit the "Trophy Commission". Granger points out that "Monuments Men" is no different.
  • Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: Justified — Stahl shoots at Claire at the railway station and misses even though she doesn't try to take cover, but he's a non-combatant soldier using a Luger pistol at long range, and he's shooting from a moving train. Colonel Wegner kills Jeffries with his Luger after being shot in the shoulder, but he's an experienced soldier firing at a much closer range.
  • It Has Been an Honor: Granger says this to his fellow soldiers just before stepping off a mine, but survives.
  • Land Mine Goes "Click!": Granger steps on a mine (while inside a mine) so his fellow soldiers stack bricks on it in the hope of making up his weight. When he steps off the detonator goes off but not the explosive, the mine having been damaged by an earlier fire.
  • Let Us Never Speak of This Again: Garfield and Clermont agree not to tell anyone they were scared and nearly killed by a small boy.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: Subverted, it is noted that the Russians are seizing the art they recover as reparations for the 20 million men they have lost in the war, and this loss is treated with decent gravity. They are still treated as rivals at best and the lesser evil at worst, since most of the art they are stealing was already stolen from the other millions of people the Nazis conquered and killed (as well as repatriating Soviet art).
  • My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels: Granger's French is so grammatically awful that every bilingual Frenchman he meets insists that he stop.
  • Nazi Gold: The Men find quite a lot of it in one of the art storage facilities. While they don't consider it all that important compared to the paintings and sculptures they found with it, Allied Command finds securing the gold - and with it the public declaration that Hitler is now bankrupt - far more interesting than the artwork.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: The Monuments Men accidentally stumble upon Germany's gold reserves while searching for stolen art, but in the film it's treated as just something that happened that seemed irrelevant to their primary mission. In Real Life, though, this accidental discovery played some importance in hastening the end of the war.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Sgt Garfield stands up in the obstacle course to talk to his friends despite the soldiers firing over his head. They inform him that, contrary to what he believes, they weren't firing blanks.
    • Garfield and Clermont realize they're out in the open between an American and a German patrol.
    • Stahl has one when his kids give the Nazi salute in response to a casual "Heil Hitler" by Savitz.
  • Plunder: What the Nazi do with all the artwork, while at least the Soviets have some pretext with German artwork as some payback for all the horrors Nazi Germany inflicted on them.
  • Pull the Thread: Two of the Monuments Men are led to a farmer who was an "arts student", who is in reality Viktor Stahl, one of the Nazis in charge of the looting in Paris. The fugitive tries to pass off the paintings in his house as mere copies, but the experts are able to tell in seconds that they are the real ones with clear evidence they are stolen and make him squirm with their questions until they arrest him.
  • Punny Name: The SS officer in charge of stealing art in Paris is Viktor Stahl, which is German for "steel"
  • Race Against the Clock: The final seizure has the Russians coming in since the territory has been ceded to them, despite the Monuments Men only just finding a piece of art one of their men earlier died for. They only just get it out, thanks to a burning wreck on the road delaying the Russians.
  • A Rare Sentence: When the Monuments Men learn that the Germans are going to destroy the looted artwork in the event of Hitler's death, they realize the urgency of their mission while Jean-Claude remarks that Hitler better doesn't die. He acknowledges that he didn't think he'd ever hear himself utter that sentence.
  • Running Gag: French people constantly asking Granger to please "not speak French." He states that he learned it in Quebec, but apart from some slang, he's beyond terrible in that dialect as well (pronunciation, grammar, syntax are all wrong and he is barely understandable).
  • Saying Too Much: Teaching your kids to Heil Hitler is not a good idea.
  • Serious Business: Initially averted since Stokes stresses that no art is worth more than their lives, but when two fellows are killed in the line of their duties, it becomes this.
  • Smug Snake: Stahl, making his later fall all the more glorious.
  • So Much for Stealth: Jeffries cocks his pistol (to allow a more accurate first shot) letting Colonel Wegner know an armed man is in the church.
  • Spiteful Spit: Viktor Stahl tells Claire Simone to fetch him another champagne glass so he can share a toast with Hermann Goering. She selects a glass from the kitchen and spits in it. A member of the staff is looking on in surprise, but when Claire informs her it's for Stahl she spits in the glass as well.
  • Taking You with Me: The Men learn of the Nero Decree to destroy everything if Hitler dies or Nazi Germany falls and they must find the art before that happens.
  • Tastes Like Friendship: Confronted at gunpoint by a lone German soldier who can't speak English, Campbell breaks the ice by offering him cigarettes so they can sit down and have a smoke. Contrasted in a later scene when Stokes and Wegner don't share a friendly cigarette.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Campbell and Savitz. They constantly taunt and grate one another, but by the end of the film, they've shared so much they can't help but like one another.
  • Was It Really Worth It?: President Truman asks Stokes whether the two Monuments Men who died would have considered their deaths worthwhile. Despite having said to the men earlier in the movie that their deaths weren't worth a piece of art, Stokes concludes that they would have.