Some people have tired of our glut of World War II films. On the one hand, I sympathize. But on the other hand, WWII was such an expansive conflict that it generated thousands of stories that are well worth telling. The trick is that we should make fewer movies in the Saving Private Ryan/Band of Brothers mold and more about other aspects of the war. The Monuments Men seems like an admirable effort to do just that, but the film has not been well-received. On the one hand, this is a shame, since the movie dramatizes a fascinating part of the war, one that many people don’t know about. But on the other hand, as usual, documentaries have beaten fiction to the punch in telling this tale. So if The Monuments Men is a letdown, you can learn about the exact same thing with The Rape of Europa.
The “Monuments Men” were the members of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, a section of the allied forces that operated during the latter years of WWII. A collective of art historians and experts, they were dedicated to preserving the culture of Europe, which had been just as ravaged by the Axis assault as its people and infrastructure. As the film tells us, the Nazis were not just among the worst killers in history; they were some of the most prolific thieves, as well. Hitler’s regime stole one-fifth of Europe’s art. It was the job of the Monuments Men to recover these works.