The monuments man

The monuments man

He has been the dream man of millions of women all over the world. He has shown that apart from his looks he has a considerable acting talent. OK, he has been forcing us to taste the espresso coffee of a particular brand or to share a Martini with him, but he has also tried to awaken our feelings of guilt and sympathy over such humanitarian disasters as Darfur, Haiti and the tsunami as well as informing us through his documentaries about our world’s crises.

So after a career which spans over almost four decades, it was not surprising that George Clooney would have chosen a subject so sensitive to us who live in this part of the world: the plundering of works of art. The film which deals with the looting of art during the Nazi period is based on a book by Robert M. Edsel, but otherwise it is an all-round Clooney job: he directed it, he wrote it, he produced it and he is starring in it together with a host of other “big” names such as Matt Damon and Bill Murray. 

The critics were not kind to Clooney’s fifth directorial attempt. They found the film a bit boring, light and a bit unbalanced. “The notion of architects, sculptors and academics sent to basic training and unleashed upon the theater of war promises to deliver both comedy and action, but Clooney never strikes the storytelling balance that the material deserves,” wrote one acclaimed critic although a few found some kind things to say. Like Peter Travers who thought that “The work of the Monuments Men is fresh territory for film, and Clooney builds the story with intriguing detail and scope. ‘The Monuments Men’ is a movie about aspiration, about culture at risk, about things worth fighting for. I’d call that timely and well worth a salute.”

Culture at risk, timely, things worth fighting for. Let us pause a bit. Did it catch your eye a story three months ago, when some 1,500 artworks confiscated by the Nazis were discovered in Munich hidden in the flat of a recluse man? 

And going back a little more, do you remember the Buddhas of Mamiyan in Afghanistan, dynamited before our very eyes in March 2001 by the Taliban of Mullah Omar when their government declared that they were “idols”? Do you remember the plundering of the Baghdad Museum in April 2003? Out of at least 15,000 exhibits only 8,500 have been recovered. Or very recently, the plundering of the temples and tombs of the ancient city of Palmyra in neighboring Syria while the civil war has already created a lucrative antiques trade which will inevitably surface in one of world’s large museums. 

Turkey was accused of using cultural blackmail for its campaign to reclaim several pieces of antiquity found or stolen from Turkey, although belonging usually to the Greek or Roman periods. But the now intact “Weary Herakles” reclaimed from Boston Museum is an example of the argument that pieces of art and cultural history should be unified and stay in their place of origin and not scattered in fragments in various parts of the world, frequently in the world’s largest museums. 

Which brings me back to George Clooney. In a press conference he gave last week on the screening of his new film, during the Berlin Film Festival, he was asked by a Greek journalist his opinion over the demand by Greece for Britain to return the Parthenon Marbles, exhibited now in the British Museum after being “looted” by Lord Elgin’s agents from the site of the Parthenon when he was an ambassador to the Sublime Porte between 1799 to 1803. And Clooney’s answer? “I think you have a very good case to make about your artifacts. Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing if they were returned. I think that is a good idea. I think that would be a very fair and very nice thing. Yeah, I think it is the right thing to do.”