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Preserving Culture: Behind the Scenes of THE MONUMENTS MEN
Behind the Scenes of THE MONUMENTS MEN
By Ben Kayser, Managing Editor, and Rachal Marquez, Contributing Writer
THE MONUMENTS MEN is a World War II comedy-drama about a group of art experts who go to the front lines of battle to protect and save art from Hitler’s National Socialist army.
Recently, Movieguide® had the chance to speak and hear from Writer/Director/Actor George Clooney, Producer/Writer Grant Heslov and the cast, including Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Bill Murray, and Bob Balaban. The movie addresses some poignant topics, including the preservation of culture and fighting for the values that make our country great.
Q: The movie deals with heavy subject matter, but it does so in a light, fun way. Was there a desire from the beginning to make this story appropriate for a broader age audience?
George Clooney: Yes. We wanted to make an entertaining film. We like the story. We were not all that familiar with the actual story, which is rare for a World War II movie. Usually, you think you know all the stories, and we wanted it to be accessible. I like all those John Sturges films. We thought of it as a mix between KELLY’S HEROES and THE TRAIN. We wanted to talk about a very serious subject that’s ongoing, but wanted to make it entertaining.
Q: The impact of SCHINDLER’S LIST is still felt 20 years later, and it marks 75 years now since kristallnacht, and we still have 600 pieces of art that are still lost. Only 500,000 Holocaust survivors are alive now, so having done the research for this film, what do you see as the impact of Monuments Men? Where do you see this going into the future, and what do you see being done about the lost art? Even if the art can’t be returned, what can you see happening as a result?
George Clooney: Well, there’s a lot to that. First and foremost, there are so many elements of it that are tricky. There’s a lot of this art that has been found and is in other people’s homes, or museums quite honestly, and some of it is repatriating that. It’s a long process, and it’s not particularly easy. There are places of course in Russia; there was a generation of people who believed, having lost 25 million people, to the victor goes the spoils. Generationally, it seems to be moving more toward getting it to the rightful owners. Sometimes it’s tricky because it’s very hard to raise sympathy for someone named Rothschild, who had the largest private collection, because people think, “Oh, they’re pretty wealthy and it’s not such a big deal.” Of course, you want it to be returned. It is a long process, it is a continuing process, and quite honestly it’s also about looking at the loss of artifacts and art that’s going on in Syria right now. It’s understanding how important the culture is to each of these countries, and trying to find a way to get them back. It’s a long, long process, and hopefully this raises some awareness and opens some discussions on it. You know, this art that was found in Germany recently – about a billion and a half dollars worth of art – some of that art was found by the Monuments Men and given, supposedly, back to the people who were to then give it back to the original owners, and they didn’t. The guy kept it. So it looks like that art’s going to get repatriated as time passes, and that’s a good thing. If it opens up the discussion a little bit, that’s really helpful. It’s something we’re learning more about day to day as we go.
Q: George, you seem to direct a movie every three years. What attracts you to step behind the camera? What is the difference between George Clooney the director on CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND and George Clooney directing now? How do you think you have advanced?
Clooney: Well, George Clooney has learned to speak about himself in the third person more. The timing for directing is usually because it takes about that long to develop a piece, and then do pre-production and then post-production, and it takes a couple of years. I prefer directing to doing other things. Directing and writing seem to be infinitely more creative. As far as how I’ve changed, all you’re trying do is learn from people with whom that you’ve worked. I’ve worked with the Coen brothers and Soderbergh and Alexander Payne. I’ve worked with really great directors over the years, and you just try to see what they’re doing and just [learn from] it. That’s the theory. You go, “Oh, I like what they’re doing,” and you do it that way. The truth is your development – you hope – is the same way as with everything. You succeed some, you fail some, and you keep slugging away at it. I really enjoy it – it’s fun. I like it more than acting now. It’s tricky directing yourself, obviously. So I enjoy directing. I don’t know whether it’s improving or not, but it’s certainly evolving in different directions.
Q: To George and Cate, you’ve both had good years. Is there a confidence, or is there still any self-doubt when you start a new project.
Cate Blanchett: Yes. Projects like this don’t come along very often, with ensembles like this, and for me the power of the story is that it shines a light and a perspective on what we previously thought were very well-known facts. There’s a shot when they find the barrel full of wedding rings and gold fillings. We’ve all seen those horrendous pictures, and the power of cinema is that is draws on that collective history. I feel like the film harnesses our understanding of the Second World War, but yet opens a door into a very particular and noble and quirky bunch of guys (and girl) who really change where we are now and what we understand our contemporary culture to be.
Q: Following up the first question, this is a very fun and entertaining movie, but of course around very serious subject matter.
Clooney: The funny thing is it’s based on a true story. Obviously we made some things up along the way, but most of it’s true. In fact, they were part of a group that went into that mine and found – you actually see the photograph at the end of the credits – they found all of the German gold. Basically all of it, effectively ending their ability to purchase oil and to prosecute the war. There were a lot of these pieces that are true. Things that are odd, like going to the dentist and then ending up finding the paintings at this guy’s house, actually happened. Or, flipping over the painting because they were eating on top of it was actually true. So, some of the wildest parts of the movie were true. I wasn’t really looking to make a statement on things. Grant and I tend to make films that are somewhat cynical at times, and we sat down specifically saying let’s not do that for once. Let’s do one that doesn’t have any of that in it, but has a real positive outlook at things. That’s what we sought to do with this.
Q: When is it going to be released in China, and will you have to adapt it or change it for the Chinese audience? George, what do you think about the influence the Chinese market and Chinese censors have recently had on Hollywood films?
Clooney: Well only a few movies get released in China. I remember when GRAVITY got released in China, it was a news story that it was released. There are only a few films that get released, so I’m not even sure that we would be released. You know you hope that it would be, and obviously we don’t have much control over what happens to the movie when it actually ends up in certain places. You can imagine how there are places when you go overseas, where different marketing and different sensibilities come in and you hoped that they would stick closer to the story.
Q: Talk a little bit about shooting in Germany. What was it like? How is your German now? How was it butchering those German names when it came to the cities? Also, how do you think the Germans are dealing with that part of history today?
Matt Damon: Working in Germany was fun.
John Goodman: I loved it.
Bob Balaban: I was amazed at the consciousness, in Berlin especially, of the Holocaust and the War. Specifically, the Holocaust is very much a part of present discussion all over the place, which I thought was actually a great thing. There are little plaques everywhere you go around, and in different neighborhoods. This person here was prosecuted, this person was sent to this concentration camp, a family of Jews lived here, they took over his business. Very discreet, very dignified little plaques everywhere. I was really interested, because I had been in Berlin doing something 25 years before, and I guess it was too close to reunification for people to be thinking about much else. I was amazed at how much it was part of everyday life in Berlin. I liked it, and I thought it was really interesting.
Damon: I loved working there. I mean I’d worked there before on the second Bourne film, so I’ve spent a lot of time in Berlin. It’s one of my favorite cities in the world. If you talk to young Germans, it’s a huge part of their curriculum and has been for quite some time. You grow up with a much better knowledge of what happened than most Americans actually have, because it’s something that’s really forced on you and you’re forced to look at it, understand it. I think that’s reflected in German people when you talk to them. They’re very aware of this.
Clooney: I feel bad for actors, though, because for about 75 years, these German actors have had to play Nazis. You’re bringing them in to read, and you’re just going, “I know. I’m sorry, but I do need you to be really mean.” They try to say reasons that maybe he joined, and I have to say, “No, he’s a bad Nazi, and you’re going to have to just be bad.”
Blanchett: It did feel like one of the perfect places to shoot the film. I mean apart from the obvious reasons, because given that the movie does deal with what is the importance of culture and would you die for it, it is a country that’s absolutely had to, since the Second World War, ask itself massive moral questions. It’s reforged its identity based on culture. The amount of artists living and working in Berlin is unparalleled, and it’s one of the strongest economies not only in Europe, but globally. It’s because of its understanding of the importance of culture, so it felt fantastic to be working there on this.
Q: What I loved about the movie was its statement about why art is important to protect. For all of you, what is it about art that still inspires you today and why are these types of films important for us to preserve a sort of cultural legacy, since we are living in a very cynical time?
Balaban: Well, one of the things that attracted me to this was that I had always known about the stealing of the art, but never really the extent of it, and the question that the movie posed specifically. George, I thought it was great that your character actually said this a couple of times in the movie: Why is it so important that you should kill so many people, but also try to eradicate their culture? It’s so significant, and it’s something very hard to get across in another piece of art, in a movie. I thought the script and the movie did it beautifully. It’s a question that we all are struggling with all the time. Is it just pretty? What does art do for us? How does it represent us? It’s our whole inner life, out there for people to see. It’s subtle and it’s also very hard to depict, and I thought the movie did it really well.
Q: Question for Matt and Cate. Matt, your good buddy George, what’s it like working for him as a director? Does George give direction well? Cate, congratulations on your nomination today. How would you describe your morning? Is it an extra special one? How would you put it into words? And how is George as a director?
Damon: Working with George was very similar to working with Soderbergh, which makes sense because they worked together so much over the years and had a company together for a long time. George is obscenely talented as a director, I have to say. It can be a little annoying being his pal because it’s kind of like God said, “Maybe this time I’ll just give one of them everything. Let’s make him handsome. I tell you what, as he gets older, he’ll even look better.” [audience laughs] It was one of the best experiences I’ve had, and I’ve had better experiences than I could ever have asked for. I’ve worked with the very best directors around, and he belongs in their company. Or even ahead of it.
Q: Are there Monuments Men working today within the US military in war zones to prevent looting and destruction of art?
Clooney: Yeah, there is. I just got a message from Richard Stengel, who used to run Time magazine, who’s working at the State Department right now on just those types of things. Yes, they do exist. We’ve done it poorly at times – protecting the art – but there seems to be a stronger effort now, which is good. I think we’ve understood the importance of it. It’s a funny thing, one of the scenes that when we were writing, we wrote about, we said if you take their culture away, you can kill them. You can murder their families, but if you take away their culture, that’s when society breaks down. I spent a lot of time going through these villages in Sudan and in Darfur where it wasn’t enough that you killed them and killed their children. You had to destroy the things that they had created generations before. You had to destroy what made the village theirs. That was as important as the raping and the murdering of these families. You start to understand. We started to understand how, when we didn’t protect the art during the beginning of the war in Iraq – we didn’t protect those museums and those artifacts and a lot of those things are lost forever – how that can actually affect the community in a very deep way. We learned that lesson again, and we keep relearning how important those things are, how important these pieces are. What are you fighting for if it’s not for your culture and your life? It’s a hard thing when you’re doing a movie, if we’re going to write a script about saving art, it doesn’t really sound all that fun. You have to remind people that what we’re talking about isn’t just these paintings on a wall that some people can look at and get and some can’t, but it’s also about culture. It is about these monuments and these sculptures. It’s also just about the fabric of our culture, and that’s what was in our history. It is mankind’s way of recording history. So that’s a very important part, and that’s why the people at the State Department are working very hard at this.
Q: Is it worth it to die for art?
Robert Edsel (Author of the book THE MONUMENTS MEN): Is art worth a life? It’s a great question, and it’s a question that I asked all 17 of the Monuments officers that I’ve interviewed over the course of time, and many of their kids, who are my age. I think that the best answer to be given to this – of course, it’s an individual answer and everybody feels different about this. The Monuments officers, as it was characterized by Dean Keller (who was a Monuments officer that worked in Italy, whose story I told in my most recent book, SAVING ITALY, about what took place just in Italy), said that no work of art in his view is worth the life of a single boy, but risking your life to fight for a cause was absolutely worth the effort. I think we have to think of it in that context. The Monuments Men felt largely and across the board that the idea of, as glamorous as it sounds, the idea of one person running into a burning building to save an important painting – Leonardo da Vinci, whatever – no, that’s not worth a single loss of life. The idea of fighting for a cause that you believe in – democracy, capitalism in our country, certainly, a way of life including respect for cultural property – yes, that’s worth risking their lives, and it’s an endeavor that these Monuments officers were willing to undertake. As you know, two were killed during combat; there were many, many other close calls. It’s really remarkable that we didn’t lose more Monuments officers.
Q: What was the percentage of the stolen art that was taken from Jewish individuals? There was an interesting, very poignant scene in the film where they discover gold teeth in barrels, and I’m wondering if this is based on something your book and if you could describe it.
Edsel: The discovery of the works of art and gold bouillon from the German Reichsbank in the town of Merkers in April, 1945 was an astonishing discovery. People really weren’t focused on the works of art. They were focused on the fact that there was some, in today’s equivalent, five billion dollars. Basically, it would be like discovering Fort Knox. So, word spread like wildfire, and by the way they also had many of the paintings from the great German museums. But that wasn’t as much the focus; that was more adjunct to it. When the Monuments officers arrived there, along with generals Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley, who came on April 12, 1945, be mindful the war’s still under way. The war’s not over yet; it’s still three almost four more weeks before it will be over. But the news of this discovery was so astonishing, they wanted to see it for themselves.
There’s a photograph I chose not to use of General Eisenhower with his overcoat on, because it’s very cold in these salt mines, sitting on a chest just trying to gather his thoughts. Inside the chest was all this silverware from Jewish victims that had been sent to the Reichsbank to be smelted, but the war had prevented them from getting to it yet. So these are absolutely factually correct events that took place, and it was not the only place it happened. There were other salt mines, where they found these barrels filled with gold fillings and it was a horrible, horrible moment for them because they knew exactly what was taking place then.
Concerning the first question, I don’t think in context of percentage Jewish stuff versus Christian stuff, or whatever. It belongs to all of us. We’re one big world trying to figure out how to get along with each other, and we haven’t been doing as good of a job as we should do. I think if there’s a message from September 11, it’s that the United States needs to figure out how to rebuild alliances with people from around the world, because there’s some bad people out there and no one country can go it alone. During World War II, that was the message that General Eisenhower and the leadership, if they accomplished one thing that we still marvel about today it’s how you bring all these disparate parties together and maintain this alliance with these competing ideologies and competing nationalistic views. It goes to show how bad the Nazis were that everybody found a way to be united against this one evil, to find a way to defeat it and try and preserve freedom.