“The Monuments Men” is a noble movie that has a lot of big-hearted Americans and not enough crazy Nazis, not even the Fuehrer.
A little less of George Clooney might have made a difference.
The actor, handsomely topped by a helmet, plays the leader of an international platoon of curators chasing down art pilfered by the Germans and hidden in vast underground mines, caverns and bunkers.
Hitler’s particular form of wealth transfer moved millions of possessions -- pictures, statues, pianos, gold teeth, bullion, pots and pans, linens, cars -- from people who didn’t deserve them to the master race that did.
There really was an art unit commanded into being in December 1943 by General Dwight D. Eisenhower and President Franklin Roosevelt to protect Europe’s cultural treasures.
The art experts, translators and archivists -- about 400 -- were sent to Europe and included the future ballet impresario Lincoln Kirstein and James Rorimer, a medievalist who would become the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Yes, I know this seems incredible to us who live in a time when no president in living memory has shown any interest in culture, especially as it disappears in the Middle East and remains under-supported by pathetic agencies in the U.S.
Eisenhower ordered a restrained approach even on the front lines and was later awarded an honorary membership to the Metropolitan Museum.
Sadly, Ike didn’t make it into “The Monuments Men,” whose script is filled with goofy comic turns and sentimental platitudes all in the service of a very good story, which probably wouldn’t have been filmed had it not been for Clooney.
The book that inspired him, Robert M. Edsel’s “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,” is rather more gripping.
Having enlisted such friends as Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett and Bob Balaban at reduced fees, could he not have resisted co-writing the script and directing?
Thudding music by another over-achiever, the very busy Alexandre Desplat, doesn’t help the pacing.
In a scene that made me hope a German sniper was lurking, Murray gets all teary-eyed as he listens to Christmas songs while taking an outdoor shower.
Balaban’s prissy lines turn the Kirstein-inspired character into a bug-eyed twit. Kirstein! One of the most sophisticated men of his generation.
Damon’s Rorimer spends time in Paris with Blanchett, who plays Rose Valland, a curator who risked her life by keeping a secret ledger of the looted art and its destination. Oozing charm, Damon survives an embarrassing dinner in which she festoons him with an improvised tie.
Ultimately, Europe has the best cameos and there are many. It’s a gorgeous movie. There’s a magical shot of Neuschwanstein, the fairytale castle turned into a storage dump. Candlelight illuminates Michelangelo’s glistening Madonna in her lofty church in Bruges.
The Nazis truck the statue off to a secret location after shooting one of the more dispensable monuments men, a letter-writing loser. That energizes the plot as we roll south to the salt mines of Altaussee, a scenic Austrian enclave stuffed with thousands of works.
Even as the mood darkened in Berlin’s bunker, top thieves like Hermann Goering kept sending caravans to the mine, just in case, by some miracle, they might get a chance to redecorate.
The best works were intended for the Fuehrer’s museum in a new acropolis rising over his beloved town of Linz, where he would spend his retirement years listening to opera and walking German shepherds. We see him staring vacantly at a table-sized model, but he isn’t very present in the film.
Altaussee was the site of a bizarre battle between two top Nazis over whether to blow the place up with the masterpieces inside. Ja! Nein! Ja! Nein won. It’s not in the movie, but Edsel describes it vividly.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg News. Any opinions are her own.)