Rob Edelman: "The Monuments Men"

Feb 24, 2014

During World War II, Hitler and the Nazis looted and eventually destroyed countless works of art in an attempt to obliterate a cultural heritage that did not conform to the tenets of National Socialism. And the key issue that is explored in The Monuments Men, the new film directed by and starring George Clooney, is: Was it worth risking one human life to salvage this heritage? In other words, what is of more value: The survival of one painting by Pablo Picasso or the life of one otherwise obscure human being?

As evidenced by the content of The Monuments Men, Clooney and his creative partners would choose the painting over the person. In other words, the salvaging of a painting is well-worth the risking of life and limb. You can agree or disagree with this point-of-view, and you can debate it well into the night. But what is of interest here is the manner in which, cinematically-speaking, Clooney and company express their viewpoint. This goes way beyond the fact that, in the screenplay, their take on the subject is expressed over and over and in so many words.

The central characters in The Monuments Men are a group of mostly middle-aged males who are recruited to head off to central Europe in the waning days of the war to rescue the art that Hitler pilfered. Early on, they clash with a superior officer who tells them, and I am paraphrasing here, "I do not want to have to write a condolence letter to the parents of even one soldier who has died merely to save a piece of art." The giveaway here is the manner in which the scene is staged, as well as the character of the superior officer. He might easily have been depicted as a wizened, battle-weary veteran warrior who offers his opinion in hushed tones. He might have been presented as a combat vet who has seen and experienced too much death, too many lives snuffed out in the course of the war. This character would have been a sympathetic one, and this depiction would have lent credence to his point of view.

But no, this is not the case. Instead, this character is a young man: a "boy soldier," if you will. He practically shouts the dialogue and, because this character is so youthful and so brash, the implication is that he is inexperienced and insensitive as he brushes off those older, more erudite individuals who are committed to salvaging a cultural heritage. Within the framework of the story, this young man is an obstructionist. This is put forth via the manner in which he is presented: his age, and how he looks, and what he says, and how the actor who plays him is directed to read his lines. So as you watch this scene, you are supposed to say to yourself: "How dare this young pup brush off these men and their mission"-- even though what he essentially is saying makes perfect sense!

Beyond their entertainment value, plenty of films deal with serious subjects. One such film is The Monuments Men, which is no mere World War II action film. And this sequence is a textbook example of how a filmmaker may ever-so-subtly put forth a point-of-view and, in so doing, ever-so-subtly influence the viewer.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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