The Polish première of the "Monuments Men" film was yesterday. I was working, so went to see it this evening. I must say that from the reviews I'd read, I was expecting worse. If you accept from the outset that it's not intended as a documentary film presenting what really happened, but are forewarned that the presentation is as an adventure, a band-of-brothers muddling through against all odds and its going to have cloying Hollywood sentimentalism in it, it was OK. Mind you, the bit with the dying anonymous soldier and Christmas song over the Tannoy was over-long, and actually could (should) have been cut. The echo of Seargent Ryan as they landed was an unneccessary cliche. I was disappointed by the historical background to the adventure. The Germans were from the beginning presented as cardboard cutout antiheroes with evil as the sole motive for their actions, their uniforms and insignia were also atrociously done and the Hitlerjugend uniforms were totally inadequate. The Soviet uniforms were not much better.
It was a bit jarring to find three quite substantial segments of the film devoted to the question "is this sacrifice worth it for some art?" (so trying to take up the theme of The Train - related to the same story). Once would have been enough for most audiences. Sitting watching it in a cinema built over the levelled remains of the Warsaw Ghetto, a few hundred metres from the National Museum which was one of the collections the Nazis robbed (and had its own hero figures trying to prevent it - some of them at great cost to themselves), the question was superfluous the first time. People here have not forgotten. As the reviewer for Polityka wrote:
[...] szalę klęski przechyla już na samym początku, skierowany do ludzkości kuriosalny monolog Clooneya, w którym namiętnie i bez cienia zażenowania objaśnia to, co z wjątkiem Amerykanów wszyscy doskonale wiedzą, mianowicie, że kultural jest ważna.The film presents the so-called "Nero Decree", following closely Edsell's own one-sided presentation, in rather dramatic terms. I was angered by one upsetting scene towards the end of the film as an SS (I think it was, I was not looking at his uniform) officer orders a stash of art burnt at a place called Mannheim. This never happened and is inserted in the film's narrative for dramatic effect, will our heroes reach the next stash before the evil men destroy it? Fine, a bit of artistic licence, but what did the film-makers do? Which painting is shown in loving detail being consumed by the flame-thrower, none other than the Czartoryski Raphael (Portrait of a Young Man) which was not in the ERR stores, but removed from Wawel by the fleeing Hans Frank. The Raphael that colleagues of mine here are still looking for. I do not think it was my imagination that I heard a gasp of horror from the (rather sparse) audience as the flames consumed this artwork, because this painting is quite famous in Poland. Why, why did the film-makers chose this inflammatory image? Any painting would have done, a landscape, a woman's portrait, flowers in a vase, a Jewish banker, but they chose to show the (one hopes fictional) destruction of Poland's number one missing WW2 cultural property. Why? Thoughtlessness? A US desire to poke the polaks? Whatever, it was not appreciated. Whatever message the film may have been intended to have for European audiences was lost at that moment on the Poles, because what we see on the screen can only be explained as US falsification of history.
Those quibbles aside, probably many people watching the film will be prompted to consider the achievements of the WW2 "Monuments men", perhaps read about it, and think what that means for us. I'd like to think it would prompt the more reflexive among them to ask why we did not see anything like that in Iraq in 2003 and what we can do to thwart the culture criminals.
In accordance with this, the Polish press is carrying today texts such as: Anna TyszeckaKim byli prawdziwi „Obrońcy Skarbów”? Polityka, 28 lutego 2014.