Based on the real history chronicled in the non-fiction book “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History” by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter, “The Monuments Men” is an action drama focusing on seven over-the-hill, out-of-shape museum directors, artists, architects, curators, and art historians who went to the front lines of WWII to rescue the world’s artistic masterpieces from Nazi thieves and return them to their rightful owners. The Monuments Men found themselves in a race against time to avoid the destruction of 1000 years of culture, they would risk their lives to protect and defend mankind’s greatest achievements.
The film is directed, co-written, co-produced and starred in by George Clooney with a phenomenal ensemble cast including Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Cate Blanchett.
Cate Blanchett rounds out the cast as Claire Simone, a Frenchwoman in a unique position in Occupied France. “This story opens up the Second World War in a way that gives you a different perspective on it,” says Cate Blanchett, who plays a key role as Claire Simone, a woman who holds the key to the secret location of thousands of priceless pieces of stolen art.
“These men were spurred on by a higher ideal. So many of the works that we take for granted in the great museums of the world were returned by this band of men – it was a near impossible task. Absurd, in a way: non military men going to the front lines and asking generals to stop bombing a certain church or area to save a window, or a sculpture or mural – you wonder how they were able to save anything at all. It’s an extraordinary, selfless thing that they did, done to preserve history.”
“Claire Simone is a curator at the Jeu de Paume – once an art museum but became a kind of depot for art looted by the Nazis,” Blanchett explains. “But her real work goes on at night, when she records the provenance of the works and where they were being taken in an obsessively detailed way. She’s the catalyst for the third act of the movie – the Monuments Men know the works are disappearing but they don’t know where they are going, and they need her information.”
Blanchett says that there was truly something different about the ways the Nazis went about looting art. “In every war, there’s looting. What was shocking to me was the mathematical, calculated and systematic way the Nazis went about their looting, and the fact that their acquisition of works began as early as 1938.”
The other element that made the Nazi looting different was the so-called Nero Decree. “When Hitler realized he was going to lose the war, he ordered that everything the Nazis had amassed was going to be destroyed. He was going to leave nothing in the hands of the victors,” Blanchett explains. “In relation to the art, what the Nero Decree meant was that everything that they had stolen was to be destroyed.”
“Matt’s character, Granger, must win her trust,” Blanchett continues. “There was an understandable fear on the part of the French that, if the works were recovered by the Allies from the Nazis, they’d simply go to collections or collectors in Russia and the United States. From that standpoint, did it really matter whether it was stolen by the Germans, the Russians or the Americans?”
Ultimately, Granger and Simone forge an unusual bond, Blanchett says. “I think the love story that exists between them is a mutual love of art, of culture.” Blanchett says. “They are both gripped – passionately gripped – by the importance of saving this work for all time. They believe that no single person can ever truly own a masterpiece. It’s for everyone. So, I think they’re united in the nobility of the cause.”
Blanchett’s character is inspired by Rose Valland, a French woman who bravely and secretly kept track of the Nazis’ systematic tracking, risking her life in the process. “Rose Valland was, at first, a volunteer and then overseer at the Jeu de Paume, which adjoins the Louvre. During the war, it was a depot for looted Jewish art collections and other objects. Hermann Göring basically used the Jeu de Paume as a shopping mall – the Nazis set it up like an exhibition space for the pilfered art,” Blanchett explains. “Her work singlehandedly saved crate-loads, castle-loads full of works of art that otherwise could have easily been destroyed. The fact that she was working alone was an act of extraordinary bravery. I think she was able to achieve what she did because she didn’t stand out – she was the woman least likely.”
“The Monuments Men” opens February 12 in cinemas nationwide from 20th Century Fox to be distributed by Warner Bros.