Co-founders’ Note: Let’s all give a big warm and yes, filthy welcome to Alicia Cooper, our newest contributor, with her inaugural post on the Hollywood revision of The Monuments Men. We’re oh-so-glad she decided to tackle the problems with this film because we were way too drunk when we saw the movie to remember anymore details than a foggy retelling of Oceans Eleven set in World War II.
During World War II, approximately 350 men and women from thirteen countries were assigned to the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program (MFAA). This unit was composed of art historians, museum curators, educators, architects, and other cultural professions. President Franklin D. Roosevelt tasked the MFAA to protect and preserve museums, monuments, churches, historic buildings, treasures of western heritage that are vulnerable in war. The MFAA also became responsible for tracking down artwork stolen by the Nazis from public and private collections.
Robert M. Edsel’s book The Monuments Men, published in 2009, has been released as a movie co-written, directed by, and starring George Clooney. Monuments Men, the movie, focuses on the Nazi plundering of art and finishes with the Americans’ discoveries of the Nazi warehouses. The cast includes Matt Damon, John Goodman, and Bill Murray who work together in an MFAA platoon.
The female members of the MFAA are completely absent from Clooney’s version, which only addresses the men in combat zones, mostly during the war. Just prior to the film’s release, The New York Times published about the contributions of art historians Edith A. Standen, Ardelia Ripley Hall, and the other few dozen women members. In real life, Matt Damon’s character, James Granger, would have been married to a Monuments Woman. His wife had a master’s degree in art history and was based in the States, analyzing aerial photographs for cultural sites.
A story about men in combat during World War II presents certain limitations on female roles that are due to the time period. The only major female character in The Monuments Men is Claire Simone played by Cate Blanchett. Simone’s character is based on the real-life French art historian Rose Valland. Rose Valland was an assistant for the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris. The Nazi task force ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg) responsible for plundering cultural valuables was based in this museum. Valland began to work for the museum in 1932 on a volunteer basis. In 1941, the Director of the French National Museums, Jacques Jaujard, hired Valland as a paid custodian of the permanent collection during the German occupation. Jaujard secretly collaborated with the French Resistance and asked Valland to spy on the Nazis. Valland kept her knowledge of German a secret from the Nazis and developed a network of art handlers, packers, and other employees who became her informants, sometimes unwittingly. A major informant was Dr. Borchers, an art historian employed to catalogue and research the loot, who confided in her. She kept records of the art that came in and out of the museum. These records were useful for returning publicly and privately owned French artworks after the war.
Beginning in Edsel’s book, the evaluation of Valland’s contributions carries sexist overtones. Valland’s appearance and single status are repeatedly mentioned as connected to her achievements. Edsel describes Valland as “an assuming but determined single woman with a forgettable bland style and manner.” He states that these attributes aid her espionage—for example, her understated appearance enables her to get past guards without being searched. Her single status implies that family duties do not tie her down, and never mind that the married male soldiers are expected to risk their lives regardless of family ties.
The men around her define Simone. Her vulnerable position is demonstrated by her tense relationship with the Nazi leader Hermann Goering. Goering worked closely with the ERR in order to select art for Hitler and his private collections. He received personal exhibitions at the Jeu de Paume. In Simone’s first scene, Goering appears first. He then asks her to bring him champagne. In the kitchen, she spits disdainfully into his glass, the first clue that she is not actually part of the Nazi regime. This is confirmed in the scene when Simone “sees him off” at the train station as he leaves Paris, yelling curses at Goering in plain sight while he shoots at her from afar.
In the book, Edsel vaguely suggests a flirtation between Valland and the American Monuments Man James Rorimer whom she eventually chooses to confide in. In a pivotal scene, Edsel writes that Rorimer takes Valland’s hand while pressing her for information. It is hard to imagine that Rorimer would take a male colleague’s hand in the same manner. But Edsel also takes care to tell anecdotes of Valland’s character. Shortly after Paris’ liberation, Valland tries to prevent a gun-toting French mob from storming the museum’s basement storage area and is threatened at gunpoint to prove she is not hiding Germans.
Unfortunately, the character Simone is diminished by the Hollywood impulse to feminize and sexualize Blanchett. The movie takes care to embellish the suggested flirtation between Simone and Granger, played by Matt Damon. Their clandestine activities set the mood for romance. Granger comes alone to her apartment one evening, and Simone is wearing a slinky black dress. She dresses Granger up with a tie. For the first time, Simone appears pretty and feminine, donning bright lipstick, pearls and removing her austere glasses as the two get closer in the candlelight. She leans close to Granger in order to show him important documents, and the camera zooms in on the two’s closeness. The camera also zooms in on Granger taking her hands into his. It is more than unfair that the pivotal scene of Simone’s major contribution is charged with an irrelevant sexual tension. The information that Valland gave Rorimer assisted his professional success. In Hollywood, a woman not only lends to male achievements, but also serves their fantasies.
Clooney also gives himself a romantic interest. The most important female character to Clooney is clearly Michelangelo’s The Madonna of Bruges, a marble sculpture of Mary with the infant Jesus. The Madonna is a western icon of womanhood. Upon discovery of the famous statue in the Nazi storehouse, Clooney’s character respectfully removes his hat, breathlessly beholding her image. The ultimate catch, the Madonna is rescued by Clooney and transported to safety. The statue is laid horizontally on the back of an army truck, partially exposed to the open air so that her frozen white face appears against the blurred countryside on the journey of her return. In this telling shot, the Madonna is covered up to her neck by a blanket, crudely bedded on a pile of straw.