Greetings again from the darkness. Watching the 2014 release of The Monuments Men inspired me to re-watch this fascinating documentary on the same subject. Thanks to the interviews of real life Monuments Men like Harry Ettlinger, Kenneth Lindsay, Charles Parkhurst and Bernard Taper, we better understand the overwhelming mission these folks were on, and how even today, some battles wage on over the rightful owners of artwork.
To drive home the point that there is more at stake than just pride, the case of Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” is studied. Adele’s niece continued her litigation against Austria until a court finally awarded her the painting (and 3 others). She sold “Adele” for $135 million to a collector. So clearly the cause is not just for mother country. Economics play a huge role. Regardless, the more interesting portion of the story is the relentless pursuit of stolen artwork, artifacts, furniture and collectibles, and the attempts to return them to the rightful owners. That part was possible thanks to the extraordinary secret record keeping of Rose Valland (the basis for Cate Blanchett’s role in the new movie). Also stunning is the devastating architecture destruction brought on by WWII, really making it a bittersweet story.
The breathtaking photographs and incredible archival film footage provide a clear understanding of the breadth of destruction. Seeing the before and after of the Monte Cassino monastery is just crushing. Gaining perspective on the damaged frescoes, some dating to 1360, when Pisa’s Camposanto was bombed, drives home the significance of culture and history. Seeing the aftermath of the bombing of Florence’s iconic bridges brings tears to the eyes. The most impressive piece is that so much of Europe has been rebuilt in the past 7 decades. Maybe that goes to answer the question of whether a human life is worth protecting art. People survive and find a way … even if Rafael’s “Portrait of a Young Man” remains missing.
This is based on the book by the Lynn Nicholas, and the film does a terrific job of presenting how the war impacted Russia, Germany, Italy, France, Austria and Poland. It’s also tough to reconcile, as one of the Monuments Men attempts, the idea that the Nazis were so protective of the stolen artwork while simultaneously exterminating so many Jewish people. Maybe things would have been different if a young Adolph Hitler had been accepted to art school.
watch the trailer: