Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sunday Review: Two war films

That question yet again: can art rescue us from World War II?

By Jonathan Price

The Oscars have just been awarded, and I’m going to write about two films that those Oscars largely ignored, for different reasons: The Book Thief, because it got nominated in only one category and seemed a minor film in comparison with the others; and The Monuments Men, because it opened too late to be considered for this year’s Oscars. Both are films about World War II and, for me at least, raise interesting questions about that key twentieth century event, which, for most of us in 2014, some 70 years after its ending, is just history, the past: but each succeeding year is still good for a film or two.
    The war is attractive for a variety of reasons, I guess, a kind of somber gift that keeps on giving: its geographical reach was so vast and its social penetration so varied and so deep, that there’s always a new story to be told, or one that was somehow missed. And also, as viewers, we think we know the moral: the good guys, the U.S. and the Allies (including, of course, the Russians, who suffered greater losses than any other country), won in the end, and they were fighting a figure, Hitler, almost universally associated with evil. But do we, can we, really know? Do we actually understand that war or its significance? As so often, I have to warn you that, though I recommend seeing both films, I’m going to disclose so much information in the following paragraphs that you might want to skip them until you’ve seen the movies themselves.

The Book Thief got a lot of play in advance, in previews, in reviews. And it is a film that touches the heart, and brought me to tears at the end, kind of by surprise. At the finale the audience applauded, an experience I don’t encounter very often in movie going. The outlines of the story are simple – a young girl in Nazi Germany during World War II, displaced and vulnerable, who finds a kind of human compensation for loss and fear in stealing and reading books. Liesl (Sophie Nélisse) is half an orphan who has been shipped to this German town and adopted after her mother is forced to abandon her (we are never sure why). She begins her first day at the local school by being forced to write her name on the blackboard – but all she can produce are 3 X’s – for she is illiterate. But her kindly adoptive father Hans (Geoffrey Rush) reads with her and constructs a giant dictionary on the walls of the basement to improve her vocabulary; then Max, the wandering Jew her adoptive parents have hidden in the basement, encourages her to describe the outside world in new metaphors and gives her a journal as a present to hold those descriptions.
    I’m probably not the only viewer reminded by this film of The Reader (2008), an Academy Award winner that also dealt with the Nazi period and focused, sympathetically, on another illiterate figure, played by Kate Winslet (Hanna Schmitz). We first see Hanna in the early 1930s in Germany in a sexual relationship with a much younger man who reads to her, and through whom the whole experience of the film is eventually seen. Hanna confronts us with the moral quandary of a lifelong illiterate who becomes a concentration camp guard and then is placed on trial with others for their crimes in the camp; Hanna so much wants to hide her illiteracy that she takes responsibility for acts that were shared. We are left, as is the protagonist, with the question of how to fully and fairly judge her.
    The Book Thief is less stark, less morally startling than that earlier film, and it wins us over because Liesl, the young reader who begins in illiteracy is so innocent, so charming, and so kind. The film is also marked by an unusual narrator, Death himself: At some level Germany 1938-45 (the primary span of the film’s time) is an allen-compassing world of death, and virtually everyone is suffering or will suffer some kind of loss – but there is essentially much normal life still going on, walks to school, childhood flirtations, schoolyard bullies, secrets, and mysteries. And death is, apparently, all-knowing and inclusive, for he takes us up not only to the end of the war but to Liesl’s death, in the twenty-first century, when she has become a successful writer and led a happy life in, apparently, Manhattan. Death reminds us we will all meet him: somehow I doubt whether this is the most sophisticated or morally profound observation on World War II, true and regrettable though it may be.
    Yet the Germany we experience in the film, despite patriotic songs in school, basement searches by SS officers, giant red flags with swastikas ubiquitous, and a refreshingly dramatic mass book burning early in the film, is treated very generously. The SS officer we see searching basements (and worry he may find Max hiding in Liesl’s family’s basement) is not seeking hidden Jews, but only looking for adequate underground storage to serve as air-raid shelters during nighttime bombings. The songs sung at school assert Germany’s ascendance and its dislike of aliens, Jews, nonGermans, and so forth – but there is no accompanying bitterness or cruelty to heighten these songs. The only figure of clear malevolence in the film is the schoolyard bully, an ardent Nazi, Franz, whom Liesl easily beats up in a fight.
Hans and Liesl
    In fact, nearly all the characters in The Book Thief turn out to be endearing – Liesl’s adoptive mother Rosa, who at first seems harsh, bitter and uncaring, in contrast to the kindly and forgiving stepfather, comes to school in a harsh mood and calls out Liesl, but we learn she has used the rough exterior superficially associated with her reputation to hide her relief that their hidden tenant, Max the Jew, hasn’t died from a wintery fever, but has recovered. The burgomaster who presides as the book burning and lives in a stately mansion at the edge of town, has a wife who befriends Liesl and invites her to the well-stocked mansion library to read books – some of which Liesl eventually steals (actually borrows: despite the title, we only see her borrowing and returning two or three books).
    Given the deathly narrator and the war setting, there are certainly direct reminders this was far from a pleasant, peaceful, or humane existence – there is one scene of brown-shirts breaking windows and beating merchants during Kristallnacht in Stuttgart, another of Jews with yellow stars marched through the streets of Liesl’s town by unsympathetic German officers, and then there is the unannounced air raid that results in death’s claim on Liesl’s adoptive parents, her young boyfriend Rudy and his family, and many others. Still Max and Liesl survive the war, as of course did most others. And we realize she grew because of the kindnesses of many friends and the power of words and literature.
    That’s consoling, but the continued voice-overs by Death seem artificial, contrived, unnecessary. And somehow the treatment of the German village is oddly sanitized.

The Monuments Men, based on actual experiences of a small unit of American soldiers, like The Book Thief, is devoted to the idea that art is the key element to survive the war. But in this latter case, men fight for it, and in a series of comments mostly as narratorial voiceovers, attempt to justify their pursuit. Despite its ground-hold in actual military and historical realities (or perhaps because of it), and despite an all-star cast with talented character actors and a few memorable moments, Monuments Men is oddly disappointing, like a cartoon or a sketch or a pastiche of a World War II film. After every sequence there is something lacking, something missing, or there has been a clear compromise or simplification or appeal to sentimentality.
    The most obvious instance of this kind of subtle but repeated failure is the background music, which becomes annoying and obtrusive. It’s constantly changing, constantly encouraging viewers in how to read scenes, especially when the men rediscover, or recover, supposedly great works of art, but neither the actors nor the scenes nor the music nor the art works themselves are that impressive.
    The crusade to recover stolen works of art from the retreating Nazi troops in the last year of the war is oddly disappointing and unconvincing. Perhaps it is the lack of marquee art works at the center. Undoubtedly the most famous art work threatened is Da Vinci’s last supper, painted on a wall in Milan, in a building that collapses due to bombardment. We see this painting, in the film’s chaotic mosaic structure, but it’s never woven into the plot, nor does the American Monuments Men unit save that art work. Instead the two key works they save are a Madonna and Son by Michelangelo (preeminent, allegedly, because it’s his only sculpture outside Italy) and the Ghent altarpiece. Along the way in the background are a Vermeer and a minor Rembrandt, but they seem only like footnotes; we also see the charred frame that once held a Picasso. When the soldiers of the unit finally locate and uncover the hidden Michelangelo piece, there is a moment and some music, but nothing like the reverse tracking shot showing surprise and astonishment that Pierre Renoir employed in a truly great war film, The Grand Illusion (1937).

    So the arguments that the film seems to want to make, that these great art works are our heritage, are threatened with extinction, and are worth military effort to save, just aren’t very convincing or compelling. But it keeps making these arguments in a number of forms and scenes, nonetheless. That there should be something saved from the morass of such a conflagration other than human lives and dignity is perhaps ennobling, that art itself may hold the key to human persistence and transcendence is satisfying, but each time the film states some version of this, it is underwhelming. Saving Private Ryan (1998) kept offering a number of explanations for what to its platoon appeared to me a misguided mission, to save one near-anonymous soldier in the aftermath of D-day, and these were arguments ultimately about the value of the war itself; yet they had some resonance and depth, and kept varying – because it is not easy to offer such vindications.
    Frank Stokes (George Clooney) persuades President Roosevelt to create the Monuments Men corps because victory in the war would be hollow if all human art were lost. But as the film develops it seems to be an effort to prevent the Germans from stealing major European art works for a Hitler Museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria. However, if the allies win the war, as they are clearly going to do when Stokes is initially martialling his arguments and later his men, such a museum would never come to pass. He assures the President and asks his men to take care that no life be lost in the quest to rescue the art, yet two of his men die.

The real momuments men
   The Michelangelo pieta and the Ghent altarpiece that are sought seem to be public art of sorts belonging to public institutions, yet James Granger (Matt Damon) is intent on saving a group of artworks in Paris that the Germans have stolen from private collectors, in the event all French Jews, and, altruistically not capturing them for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of which he will eventually become curator, but to return them to their owners. Sadly, these owners are likely to have perished in the Holocaust. In one of the film’s sequences I do find powerful, Granger reads the address inscribed on the side of a painting and returns it to the abandoned apartment in Paris where it had once resided, and hangs it on the wall in the faded space it once shadowed because he says he feels that’s where it should be.
    In another plot strand of the film, the effort of the American Monuments Men is to track down key art stolen by the Germans to prevent the Russians (American allies) from finding it and stealing it to reside in some museum in the Soviet Union. To some extent, this absurd contest, which the Americans in the film win, merely reminds us that victorious war (or power or state wealth) in Europe has historically yielded art troves for great powers – hence the great collection of Breughels in the museum in Vienna, or the wealth of art in the Prado or ….
    The wider question of who really owns the art or where it should be is not actually addressed, except to say where it used to be before the war. Near film’s and war’s end now-President Truman asks now-Major Stokes the same question about whether the recovery of the art was worth the military effort, a voiceover effects a transition to 1977, when a grandfatherly and aging Stokes visits the Ghent altarpiece with his grandson and answers, “Yes it was.” Unfortunately, the Ghent altarpiece is no more aesthetically powerful nor moving, and this echo of the ending of Saving Private Ryan, where an aging Ryan with wife and daughters visits the Normandy graves of the men who saved him…isn’t very convincing. It simply seems another place where Monuments Men has reached an aesthetic and moral dead end and run out of creativity and gas.
    The film runs out of such gas often, particularly in dialogue. One of the Men is killed, and Stokes receives word by phone and comments, “It’s a hell of a thing.” He tells a colleague, who echoes, “It’s a hell of a thing.” Without consulting the book on which this is based, I suspect this is what some remember saying, but it’s hardly worth preserving.
    The film’s confusion is repeatedly seen in its mixed, episodic, and accidental structure, apparently trying to cull together as many events from the actual history of this art corps as might interest a viewer. So we get one sequence where Stokes shows Roosevelt and others a giant map of Europe with the advances of the allies portrayed – presumably more for the contemporary audience and its perhaps questionable geography than, one would hope, for four or five men running the most serious war in modern history; in a series of other sequences, we see the Monuments Men land after D-day, we see Granger flown to Paris by a member of the Resistance who retrieves a propeller plane from a barn (he probably did, but so what? it’s a sequence with much promise, but it doesn’t lead in any coherent direction); we see titled sequences identifying allied “progress” like “Remagen” or “The Battle of the Bulge.” But the Bulge battle is an odd sequence, with nothing like the sense of threat, surprise, loneliness, and eeriness, for example, of the parallel battle in Band of Brothers….
    The odd thing is that in Monuments Men there is no battle whatsoever, just a group of men rambling between large tents across a field. It still contains the film’s most memorable scene in which architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) gets a record from his Chicago family singing “Have Yourself a Very Merry Christmas” and is allowed to hear it over the camp radio while taking a camp shower, through the graces of Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), his rival and angry friend, who arranges to have it played. This is the only music in the film that has some effect and “works”; it grows out of the situation, is actually played by the characters, as opposed to added later, as background; however, it’s still a distant echo of the same song played in >The Godfather (1972).
    There are perhaps expected set pieces, where the unit’s translator, the only Jewish soldier, finally gets to see the Rembrandt self-portrait he was forbidden while growing up in a racist Germany; or the questioning of the captured German officer by Major Stokes, who refuses any information and assumes he will be repatriated without punishment even though he ran a concentration camp and alleges since Stokes isn’t Jewish, that his extermination campaign did him a favor – but instead is threatened with hanging.
    The Monuments Men do recover a great deal of art, some 1,400 pieces, and also find a mound of gold bars hidden in a mine, as well as a barrel of gold teeth (extracted in the camps after extermination). But in a way, these are all side shows, because the film is so lost in purpose.

Perhaps the conclusion to draw from both The Book Thief and The Monuments Men is that art might provide some solace from such a tragic and terrible war, but it’s still stumbling to do so – even after 70 years.
Copyright © 2014 by Jonathan Price

Comment box is located below


  1. Today (3/9/14) BBC's website has this about Hollywood directors in WWII: []

  2. THANK YOU, Jon, for another insightful review, especially its comparisons with other films. I haven't seen either film, although I started to read the book The Book Thief, but found the Death-as-narrator ploy just too awful to endure (especially for as many pages as the book contained).

  3. Death is an interesting character and point of view choice, fairly infrequent. My memory traces it, not exhaustively, from the play Everyman to Bergman's 7th Seal, to The Book Thief to Roger Angell's beautiful piece on aging in the recent New Yorker . Problem is that death is an abstraction, and no one (I know) has actually met the Dude. Works best in abstract settings, such as that medieval morality play, or the time of the Black Death in Bergman's film, but less so in the modern world, though he does make an appearance in several Woody Allen films, somewhat in echo of Bergman, and usually with a comic twinge. Death in the Book Thief, to my mind, doesn't say anything memorable.

  4. Nice review of "The Book Thief." I was disappointed that the movie was not an adaptation of the novel by the same title. The novel's plot was so complex that I was looking forward to getting another cut at it, but the movie was excellent,