96: The Monuments Men
Did the Nazis really steal all that artwork we saw George Clooney, Matt Damon and Bill Murray chase after in The Monuments Men? That’s what we’ll find out this week.
KEEP LEARNING WITH MORE RESOURCES
- The Monuments Men – Wikipedia
- The Monuments Men (2014) – IMDb
- The Monuments Men (2014) – Plot Summary – IMDb
- The Monuments Men – review | Mark Kermode | Film | The Guardian
- The True Story of the Monuments Men | History | Smithsonian
- Herman Bunjes
- Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program – Wikipedia
- The real-life story of the Monuments Men – CBS News
- The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel
- Stout, Lt. Cdr. George L., USNR | Monuments Men Foundation
- George L. Stout – Wikipedia
- The Monuments Men True Story vs Movie – George Stout, James Rorimer
- The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History – Kindle edition by Robert M. Edsel, Bret Witter. Arts & Photography Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.
- Monuments Men sought to return the most desired object in history – SFGate
- The Ghent Altarpiece: the truth about the most stolen artwork of all time | Art and design | The Guardian
- George Clooney’s ‘The Monuments Men’ to premiere in Ghent Cathedral
- Hitler’s Hunt for the Holy Grail and the Ghent Altarpiece
- The Theft of the Ghent Altarpiece: April 10, 1934 – Kindle edition by Robert Grey Reynolds Jr.. Arts & Photography Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.
- The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb « The Global Dispatches
- The Evil, the Paranormal, and the Flat-Out Insane: The Most Bizarre Nazi Schemes | Mysterious Universe
- Ghent Altarpiece – Wikipedia
- Why Hitler and Hermann Göring Went To War Over The Ghent Altarpiece
- Hitler, the Ghent Altarpiece and the Holy Grail
- Art’s perfect theft: the `Ghent Altarpiece’ – StarTribune.com
- The Just Judges – Wikipedia
- Art’s perfect theft: the ‘Ghent Altarpiece’
- The Monuments Men: a rickety plot ruins this relic hunt | Film | The Guardian
- Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece – Kindle edition by Noah Charney. Arts & Photography Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.
- Adolf Hitler’s “Super Museum”
- Rose Valland – Wikipedia
- The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History – Kindle edition by Robert M. Edsel, Bret Witter. Arts & Photography Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.
- The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War – Kindle edition by Lynn H. Nicholas. Arts & Photography Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.
- The Monuments Men true story: Fact-checking the George Clooney, Matt Damon movie.
- ‘The Monuments Men’ review: Harks back to WWII movies of old – SFGate
- The real people behind Clooney’s ‘Monuments Men’ – Jewish World – Haaretz – Israel News | Haaretz.com
- The Monuments Men | Official Site
- Jüdisches Museum Frankfurt: The Rothschild Palais and its History
- Valland, Capt. Rose | Monuments Men Foundation
- Neuschwanstein: A fairy tale darling′s dark Nazi past | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 21.02.2014
About The Monuments Men
To date, there have been six movies that George Clooney has had a hand in writing. That’s if you count the 1999 made-for-TV movie Kilroy and his uncredited assistance on Gravity.
If you don’t, that leaves four movies.
But he didn’t write any of those movies alone. All four of those films were a team effort written by both George Clooney and Grant Heslov. Grant was the guy who directed one of the films starring George Clooney that we’ve looked at on this podcast—The Men Who Stare at Goats.
Those four films written by George and Grant are 2005’s Good Night, and Good Luck, 2011’s The Ides of March and 2017’s Suburbicon.
Then there’s the movie we’re going to be looking at today, 2014’s The Monuments Men.
Learn the true story of The Monuments Men
The movie opens with a simple black screen with that line of text we’re all so familiar with: Based on a true story.
We see a sequence of paintings as we hear a loud clanging noise. After seeing one of the paintings being covered with cloth, we finally see what was making the noise. It was a hammer, banging against the wooden boxes to packing up the art. We also can see that we’re in a church, and the men packing up the art are priests.
Then there’s more text, giving us a location: Ghent, Belgium.
And the paintings we see weren’t separate, but collectively a part of the Ghent Altarpiece. What we’re seeing here in the opening sequence are priests packing up the altarpiece before the Nazis arrive. It’s entrusted to two priests in a truck, and although we don’t see this in the opening sequence we find out later on in the movie that the Nazis caught up to the truck anyway—the two priests are murdered and the altarpiece is captured.
The basic gist of that is true, but it didn’t happen the way we see in the movie. Although I guess we don’t really see the Nazis actually capture the altarpiece, but from the way it’s described I got the sense that the storyline in the film is that the Nazis caught up with the two priests in the truck. That implies they never got to their destination.
So if that’s the case, the movie would be incorrect because the Nazis didn’t steal the Ghent Altarpiece from the Saint Bavo Cathedral. They also didn’t get it from two priests leaving the cathedral.
In truth, the Nazis stole the Ghent Altarpiece from a castle in southern France. That’s where the Belgian government hid the altarpiece, fearing the Nazis would get it. Which they did—just like the movie says.
Although it’s worth pointing out that they didn’t get all of it. The movie doesn’t show this at all, but the entirety of the altarpiece wasn’t there for the Nazis to steal.
You see, the Ghent Altarpiece is a 12-panel piece of art that’s double-sided. There’s 12 paintings on the back and 12 on the front for a total of 24 paintings. On April 10th, 1934, someone snuck into Saint Bavo Cathedral where the altarpiece was at the time. They stole two things—a wheel of cheese and the bottom left panel of the altarpiece.
To this day, no one knows where the real panel is.
And I’m just speculating here, but I’m guessing it’s not in Ra’s al Ghul’s lair, even though we saw it there on the TV show Arrow.
That panel, which is called “The Just Judges” panel, was replaced for display purposes with a recreation in 1945.
Going back to the movie, the next major plot point we see gives us an indication of the timeline in the film, though. We know that from some text on screen that say it’s March, 1943 and we’re now in Paris, France.
This scene is important to introduce us to a few characters. First is Hermann Göring, who’s played by Udo Kroschwald, along with an SS officer named Dr. Stahl, who’s played by Justus von Dohnányi—and I’m fairly certain I just butchered his name. Hah!
So these two characters are at the museum in Paris where they’re pulling in a bunch of stolen art. A third character we see here is Claire, an administrator at the museum who’s played by Cate Blanchett.
Sort of like the opening sequence, we don’t really see a lot of details about what Hermann Göring is doing here but later on in the film we find out from Claire that Göring would steal whatever art he wanted from the art that the Nazis were stealing.
And while the details in the movie have been fictionalized for the film, the overall essence of this storyline is true.
By that, I’m referring to the fact that the real Hermann Göring often made trips to the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris. While he was there, he’d do exactly what we saw him do in the movie—enjoy a glass of Champagne, a nice cigar and pick out some of his favorite works of art from the collections there.
Although in the movie, Göring briefly makes a mention of how the paintings will be presented for the Führer in Berchtesgaden. While there’s some truth to that, not all of the paintings were for Hitler.
Many of them Göring ordered loaded up and taken back to his own massive estate just outside of Berlin, which ended up with over 7,000 works of art.
As for Dr. Viktor Stahl, that character is made up for the movie but he’s based on a very real person named Hermann Bunjes.
This Hermann was an art historian who had studied in Paris, Marburg, Germany and at Harvard in the United States. He was, as the movie says, also a member of the SS when he joined the Nazi Party in 1938. His background in art was quickly taken advantage of as he helped the Nazis steal countless treasures from Jews in France.
That leads us to Cate Blanchett’s character, Claire Simone. Her character was another one where the name was changed. The real woman was named Rose Valland and, just like Claire in the movie, she was a badass.
Rose was a member of the French resistance and carefully documented all of the artifacts the Nazis were stealing—at least, the ones that passed through her watchful eye as she worked as overseer at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris.
Now that we’re introduced to these characters, if we hop back to the movie’s timeline we’re introduced to the people who will make up the Monuments Men next. Leading the group is George Clooney’s character, Frank Stokes.
That’s not his real name. The real person that Frank was based on was a man named George Stout. Just like the movie shows Frank Stokes doing, it was George who tried to convince the powers that be that there should be someone who made sure the great works of art weren’t lost during the war.
Although, as a fun fact, he wasn’t successful on his first attempt like the movie shows when we see George Clooney’s version of Frank Stokes presenting to President Roosevelt. In truth, George Stout tried to get the Americans to form some sort of group to save art but failed. He went to the British and failed there, too.
And even though the movie doesn’t show this at all, George Stout joined the U.S. Navy when his reserve status changed to active duty in 1943. It was only after this that he transferred to the U.S. Army and then, finally, in 1944, the group known as the Monuments Men was formed.
Or, more specifically as they’re called, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section—or MFAA.
George was one of the first men recruited into that group. And yes, that means that the group was started without George Stout’s being the one to create it. That doesn’t diminish his work in the group at all, it’s just different than what the movie shows.
But it’s worth pointing out that the group’s mission wasn’t really originally going to be to recover stolen art. This is something else the movie doesn’t mention at all, but if there was a first idea for the group it probably started with a British Lieutenant named Robert Wheeler. He was also an archaeologist, and as the war in Africa raged on, he was concerned with an ancient Roman site in Libya. He and another man, Lieutenant Colonel John Ward-Perkins started documenting the damage done at the site and tried to keep it protected by posting guards around it.
Then, with it becoming clear that there would soon be a heavy focus in Europe after the Allies invaded on D-Day, even more artifacts in Europe were in danger of being destroyed. That’s when a man named Paul Sachs, who isn’t in the movie at all, formed the MFAA in September of 1943. One of the first people he recruited was a former associate of his, who he credited with the idea for MFAA thanks to his earlier efforts to get the authorities to form a group like that, George Stout.
Oh, and initially they were tasked with telling the military what buildings they should or shouldn’t blow up—not really to collect art itself.
But George wasn’t the only one in the group. And as you can probably guess, most of the guys we see in the movie had their names changed as well.
There’s Matt Damon’s character, James Granger. Finally, after the movie’s title sequence, we see Richard Campbell as played by Bill Murray, Donald Jeffries as played by Hugh Bonneville, Jean Claude Clermont as played by Jean Dujardin, Preston Savitz as played by Bob Balaban and last, but certainly not least, Walter Garfield as played by John Goodman.
Matt Damon’s character, James Granger, was based on a man named James Rorimer. Bill Murray’s character, Richard Campbell, was based on a man named Robert Posey. Donald Jeffries, who was played by Hugh Bonneville in the movie, was based on Ronald Balfour.
Then there’s a Frenchman, Jean Claude Clermont, was played by Jean Dujardin—and he’s actually a completely fictional character. However, his purpose in the film is mostly to show that it wasn’t only Americans who were tasked with saving historical masterpieces. It was led by Americans, but it was a multi-national team.
The last two men we see introduced here in the movie are Preston Savitz, as played by Bob Balaban, and Walter Garfield, as played by John Goodman.
The character of Preston Savitz was based on a man named Lincoln Kirstein and Walter Garfield was based on Walker Hancock.
Going back to the movie, after being introduced to the main characters, we get a brief glimpse at Hitler looking at a scale model of a Führer Museum he’s planning. Then we see the Monuments Men group meeting where Donald mentions that before Hitler’s rise to power, he was a failed art student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.
The core threads of that storyline are true. It is true that Hitler planned a Führer Museum to house the grand works of art across the Third Reich—those masterpieces that he was stealing from people as his regime grew in power. It’s also true that before the Nazi Party’s existence, Adolf Hitler was an art student in Vienna. He failed out of school and some have suggested perhaps that’s one reason why he turned his attention to annexing Austria as one of his first acts as Führer.
In the movie, after arriving in Europe, the Monuments Men split up. Preston and Richard are heading off to Ghent to get clues about the altarpiece. William and Jean Claude head to Aachen on the far western border of Germany, or at least as close as they can get.
Donald is heading to Bruges on his own while Frank and Sam are teaming up to head—well, the movie never says where they’re going.
We haven’t talked about Sam yet. He’s played by Dimitri Leonidas and as a native German in the U.S. Army, is recruited into the Monuments Men as a translator. It doesn’t hurt that he has access to a car, too. At least, that’s the movie’s version.
Like the other characters in the Monuments Men, Sam Epstein wasn’t the real person’s name. The real person that Sam was based on was named Harry Ettlinger. And he could speak German, like Sam does in the movie.
He lived in Germany, but as a Jew in Germany he left the country before the war started.
Oh, and that bit about the car is true, too. Because most of the military’s resources were going to fighting the war, George Stout managed to get around using a Volkswagen he stole from the Germans.
As for the depiction of the Monuments Men splitting apart like we see in the movie, that’s not real. In fact, most of the movie from here on out is an oversimplification to make the storyline something that would be easier to follow.
By that, what I mean is that the eight men we see in the film that make up the Monuments Men weren’t the only ones in the group. In truth, there were 345 men and women representing 13 countries that were a part of the MFAA—the “Monuments Men.”
But that doesn’t mean some of the bits and pieces aren’t still based in fact.
For example, there’s really two pieces of art that the movie focuses on. One of those is the Ghent Altarpiece that we saw in the beginning of the movie. The other is the Madonna and Child—one that becomes a focus for the group after Donald Jeffries becomes the first of the Monuments Men to give his life for the mission.
As we learned earlier, the character of Donald Jeffries was based on a man named Ronald Balfour.
And it is true that Ronald was killed in the line of duty. He was killed in the town of Cleves, Germany along with four other German civilians—not all Germans were Nazis in the war, and many actually helped the Allies to try to get their country back from Nazi control.
While moving an old altarpiece from a medieval church, Ronald was killed by an artillery blast. It had nothing to do with the Madonna of Bruges statue like we see in the movie.
Cleves is about 170 miles, or about 273 kilometers, to the east of where we see Donald die in the movie, by the way, in Bruges, Belgium.
That brings us to the Ghent Altarpiece. Again, as we learned earlier, the Nazis did steal the Ghent Altarpiece, but it wasn’t quite like what we see in the movie. We learned about that earlier in the opening sequence.
What the movie did get right, though, was where it ended up.
We see this happen in the movie after the Monuments Men meet up again and are planning their next moves. Richard Campbell, Bill Murray’s character, is chewing on some homemade jerky. Then, just before the camera cuts, we hear him say, “Ow!”
After this, in the movie, we see Preston and Richard at a dentist’s office. With Richard in the chair being worked on, Preston is chatting casually with the dentist. The topic of their mission comes up, and after Preston explains it to the man—the dentist suggests he might know someone who can help.
Then in the next scene we see the two Monuments Men driving up to a nice farmhouse in the country with the dentist. Inside, the dentist obviously feels right at home as he starts laughing and runs off playing with the kids. Then the homeowner walks in behind Preston and Richard and we can see it’s a familiar face—Dr. Viktor Stahl.
Except this time he’s not wearing his Nazi uniform. Remember the war in Europe is basically over now. It’d seem that Viktor has settled down at home with the Nazis defeated, probably hoping he could live in peace without anyone noticing the atrocities he did during the war.
Of course the specifics were fictionalized for the film, but the whole idea that the Monuments Men were able to find Dr. Stahl by way of a trip to the dentist was true.
Well, it wasn’t Dr. Stahl. It was Hermann Bunjes, the man that Dr. Stahl was based on. And it wasn’t Richard Campbell who went to the dentist, of course, since he’s not a real person either. But you know what I mean.
It was the man that Richard Campbell was based on, Robert Posey, who had a toothache in January of 1945.
Let’s back up real quick to set a bit of context with the rest of the war. On June 6th, 1944 the Allies invaded Normandy—D-Day. We saw this in the beginning of the movie.
Just before this scene with the dentist, we also saw some text on the screen that let us know it was December of 1944, the Battle of the Bulge. Technically it was called Operation Watch on the Rhine by the Germans and the Ardennes Counteroffensive by the Allies.
The Battle of the Bulge is a nickname given to the battle because of the shape of the front lines that swelled during what would be one of the last great German offenses during World War II. They pushed the advancing Allied forces back in the region of the Ardennes along the border of Germany near Luxembourg and Belgium. The bulge pushed all the way past the town of Bastogne and into Belgium.
Tens of thousands of soldiers perished on both sides, and ranked as one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. Finally, the battle officially ended on January 27th, 1945, with the Allies managing to push back the German counteroffensive there. So many of Germany’s remaining resources were used at the Battle of the Bulge that when they failed to secure the German border, it effectively opened up Germany in early 1945.
From there, the Allies were able to march their way toward Berlin. It was on April 30th, 1945 when Hitler killed himself and just a few days later, on May 8th, the German Instrument of Surrender was signed at Reims, marking Victory in Europe Day.
So for the purposes of our story today, that means when Robert Posey went to the dentist for his toothache, technically the war wasn’t over yet—but the writing was on the wall.
And so it was that, very similar to what the movie shows, it was Robert Posey who was teamed up with Lincoln Kirstein—the guy that Preston Savitz was based on—when Robert found a dentist in the city of Trier on the far eastern side of Germany. That dentist introduced Robert and Lincoln to his son-in-law, Hermann Bunjes.
That’s when, in the movie, Richard Campbell and Preston Savitz are sitting with the dentist, Viktor Stahl and Viktor’s wife at their table. Preston is admiring the artwork on their walls, which Viktor insists are just cheap copies. After some small talk, Preston sits down next to Richard and asks if Viktor’s wife speaks English.
“No, no,” Viktor laughs nervously.
Preston says, “Good.”
Then he goes on to explain that the paintings say “Rothschild” on the back—indicating the paintings belonged to one of the largest Jewish-owned art collections. There’s a long, awkward pause. Then Viktor laughs nervously a little.
Preston laughs slightly, too, then says “Heil Hitler.”
Hearing this, the two kids playing in the living room who were oblivious to the conversation before bolt upright—”Heil Hitler!” they exclaim. Immediately, Viktor Stahl knows he’s caught. He can’t hide out pretending like he wasn’t a Nazi anymore.
Oh, and as a little side note, the dentist in the movie actually refers to Viktor Stahl as “Hermann” at one point. But the character in the movie is cast as Viktor Stahl, so I’m not really sure why he’s also being called Hermann in the film here.
But as we learned, Viktor Stahl was based on Hermann Bunjes, so maybe a little bit of truth slipped in there.
As for that whole scene, there’s truth in a lot of that, but as far as I can tell, though, the real Hermann Bunjes never tried to hide the fact that he was an SS officer like we saw in the movie.
So what really happened was that Robert Posey’s toothache lead the men to the dentist, who introduced them to Hermann. With the tides of war turning, Hermann started thinking about his own future. He was hoping to get on the American’s good side in exchange for safe passage to Paris with his family. Remember he used to live in Paris, so he was probably hoping to leave Germany behind as the war was ending and move somewhere he could disappear a little easier.
Oh, and in truth, Hermann Bunjes’s home didn’t have stolen artwork on the walls. The movie made it seem like he was hiding the fact that he was a Nazi but the artwork on the wall was what led the Americans to finding out the truth, in reality he didn’t really hide his Nazi affiliations. Instead, he tried to convince the Americans that the Nazis were frauds and he was just doing his job.
To get on their good side, Hermann offered up his knowledge on the mine at Altaussee, filled with stolen artwork that he’d had a hand in collecting. And even though the movie doesn’t really focus on this at all, he also told them where the thousands of pieces in Göring’s personal collection were.
He just conveniently left out the significance of his role in the matter. It was only later that they found out they were talking to one of the key figures in the looting of art for Göring from the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris.
So in truth it wasn’t really a map they found at Viktor Stahl’s place that the Monuments Men had to decipher like we saw in the movie. But I suppose that makes for a more tantalizing story.
The mention of Rothschild is true, though. The movie doesn’t really mention much about this other than to say Rothschild was a Jewish collector who had one of the greatest collections in the world. You’ve probably heard that last name before.
The Rothschilds are a family of bankers who was—and still is—one of the most powerful families in the world. They began their rise to power through the banking system in the early 1800s in what was then the Austrian Empire.
By the time World War II hit, they had amassed a massive collection of art for their massive homes—palaces. For example, the Palais Rothschild is the collective name for five palaces the family owned in Vienna. Inside of these palaces were thousands of precious works of art.
But the Rothschilds are Jews. After the Nazi Party rose to power and as their reign of terror expanded across Europe, they instituted a legalized looting of Jews.
Their wealth was stripped from them and the art stolen from their homes. While it’s impossible to track every piece, much of it certainly ended up in the mines or in the homes of the Nazi soldiers who plundered their belongings.
Going back to the movie, we see the Monuments Men go to a couple different mines to recover items. In one, the salt mine in Merkers, they stumble upon a stash of massive amounts of gold.
While the specifics of how it happened were fictionalized for the movie, the basic gist is true.
It happened on April 15th, 1945, and over 100 tons of gold bullion from the central Reichsbank in Germany was found by the Monuments Men. Just like the movie shows, the press made a big deal about finding all of that gold.
The movie is even correct in showing the three American generals, Eisenhower, Bradley and Patton going to the Merkers mine after the discovery of the gold. That’s not the only discovery the three generals were shown, either.
Sadly, the barrels of gold fillings from human teeth of Holocaust victims was also true.
Oh, and by the way, remember that scene where we see Matt Damon’s version of James Granger step on a landmine? As funny as that scene was, that didn’t happen.
What did happen, though, was that so-called “Nero Decree” we saw in the movie. Well, technically it was called the Demolitions on Reich Territory Decree. Or, I guess, technically it’s called something in German that I won’t even attempt to pronounce, haha! But that’s the English translation.
Here’s a portion of the decree that Hitler issued on March 19th, 1945:
It is a mistake to think that transport and communication facilities, industrial establishments and supply depots, which have not been destroyed, or have only been temporarily put out of action, can be used again for our own ends when the lost territory has been recovered. The enemy will leave us nothing but scorched earth when he withdraws, without paying the slightest regard to the population. I therefore order:
All military transport and communication facilities, industrial establishments and supply depots, as well as anything else of value within Reich territory, which could in any way be used by the enemy immediately or within the foreseeable future for the prosecution of the war, will be destroyed.
The idea of the scorched-earth policy isn’t a new one. Retreating soldiers have been destroying anything they think might be useful for their enemies as far back as the enemies of King Darius of Persia in ancient times—possibly even before that.
Fortunately, though, Hitler’s Nero Decree never went into full effect. That’s because the man in charge of carrying it out, the Minister of Armaments Albert Speer, was shocked by the order and started to doubt Hitler. In secret, without Hitler’s knowledge, Speer instructed the officers under him to ignore the order.
Of course, if Hitler didn’t even know about Speer’s secret disobedience to the order, there’s no way that the Allied forces knew about it at the time. So for all the Monuments Men knew at the time, the order was in effect.
But not all of the Nazi officers ignored the order. One of the men who tried to carry it out was a Nazi district official near Altaussee. His name was August Eigruber, and as he read the order, in particular the part about destroying anything of value, that meant destroying the mines to avoid the artwork falling into enemy hands.
He apparently didn’t get Speer’s memo about ignoring the order. Or maybe he ignored the order to ignore the order.
In the movie, when the Monuments Men make their way to Altaussee, they find that the mine is caved in. But they soon find out the locals did it, not the Nazis. Only the entrances are blocked, something the locals did to preserve the art after they found out what the Nazis were doing.
That’s true. Well, mostly.
August moved in eight crates, each filled with over a thousand pounds of bombs, into the mine. That was done in April of 1945. But he didn’t detonate them immediately.
On May 3rd, some of the local people teamed up with other Nazi officials who either did get Speer’s memo or simply didn’t like August Eigruber’s plan to destroy the mine. Together they rolled out the crates filled with bombs that August had put in there and then, a couple days later, blew the entrance to the mines with small charges, sealing everything inside.
While saving the art was a nice side benefit, it wasn’t really the primary purpose like the movie shows. The primary reason the locals didn’t want the mine blown up with all of the art inside was because the of the mine itself—that’s how they made a living.
In the movie, the area with the mine is being given to the Soviets, so there’s a big rush near the end of the film to get as much as they can out of the mine before the Russians arrive. They almost do, then George Clooney’s version of Frank Stokes finds the Bruges Madonna.
That’s unfinished business for his friend, Donald, who died defending it from the Nazis. In true Hollywood fashion, there’s mere minutes between the time when the remaining Monuments Men wheel out the Bruges Madonna and when the Soviets arrive—to a big American flag over the mine’s entrance, no less.
Well, that sort of close call isn’t true.
But the rush job was.
So it was on May 5th, 1945 when the locals closed off the entrances to the mine with small explosives. On May 21st, George Stout arrived with his team. As we learned earlier, Germany surrendered on May 8th.
So when George started his work at Altaussee, the war was over. In his journal, George wrote that he’d estimate it would take over a year to get everything out of the mine.
Then in June, the Allies started determining the zones for who would control what territory, and the Russians got the area around where the Altaussee mine was. So all of a sudden, George was given a deadline of July 1st, 1945 to get everything out and taken to their staging area in Munich—about 150 miles or 240 kilometers away.
That’s quite a bit longer than the movie makes it seem, but it still meant the clock was ticking.
Oh, and yes, the Bruges Madonna was one of the items removed from the mine at the time. That happened on July 10th, after taking a couple days to pack it up carefully along with the Ghent Altarpiece.
But wait a minute, weren’t they supposed to be out of there by July 1st? Yes, but when that day rolled around it’d seem that the Allies were still bickering back and forth about the specifics of the boundaries. So George took advantage of the extra time to continue unloading things out of the mine.
George ended up heading home on August 6th, but before he did he reported what he’d removed from the mine:
1,850 paintings, 1,441 crates filled with paintings and sculptures, 11 larger sculptures—including the Bruges Madonna—30 pieces of furniture and 34 larger textile packages. In all, that took 80 truckloads.
It was a ton of work, and lots of masterpieces saved. But it wasn’t everything. When he first arrived, George found Nazi records cataloging what was in the mine:
6,577 paintings, 2,300 drawings or watercolors, about 1,700 cases of books, 954 prints, 484 other cases filled with archives, 137 sculptures, 129 various weapons and pieces of armor, 122 tapestries, 78 pieces of furniture, and hundreds of cases of things that wasn’t identified.
One of the things we haven’t really talked about much is Castle Neuschwanstein. That’s the beautiful castle in the Bavarian Alps where, according to the movie, Claire Simone mentions to James Granger there’s a lot of art stored. When the Monuments Men arrive, they find all of the art that Claire mentioned—so many statues you can barely walk.
The basic gist of that is true.
At the height of the Nazi’s looting, many works of art were sent to Castle Neuschwanstein. It was, by the way, the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle and was designed in the late 19th century to be an isolated fortress—a perfect hiding place for the Nazi’s stolen treasure. It was here that the Ghent Altarpiece was sent after being stolen by the Nazis for some restoration before it was shipped to Altaussee for safekeeping until Hitler’s grand museum could be completed.
It was the man that Matt Damon’s character was based on, James Rormier, who oversaw the removal of the 20,000 some works of art found there.
And that leads us to someone else we haven’t really talked about much yet as we’ve been focusing on the Monuments Men themselves. I’m speaking, of course, about Rose Valland—the woman who inspired Cate Blanchett’s character, Claire Simone.
It is true that the real Rose Valland was the woman responsible for the find at Castle Neuschwanstein. While she was forced to work alongside the Nazis as they plundered art from the museum she worked at in Paris, Rose kept the fact that she knew German secret from the Nazis. She used this to help her as she carefully cataloged all of the art she could that was stolen by the Nazis.
Then, after France was liberated by the Allies, Rose volunteered to join the French Army so she could receive a commission to track down all of that art she’d been cataloging. With similar goals in mind, she worked alongside the Monuments Men and helped them track down a lot of the art that had been taken from the Jeu de Paume Museum where she worked—including those items found at Castle Neuschwanstein.
At the end of the movie, as George Clooney’s version of Frank Stokes relays his report to President Roosevelt, the President asks if he thinks the recovered art is worth the cost of the two men who died. Those two men being Donald Jeffries and Jean Claude Clermont.
Then the camera cuts to 1977 when an older Frank Stokes is in Bruges, Belgium looking at the Madonna and Child statue with what we can assume is his grandson. The older Frank simply says, “Yeah” and then takes his grandson’s hand, walking out of the grand cathedral where the statue is on display.
Oh, and as a fun little trivia fact for you, that older version of George Clooney’s character is actually Nick Clooney—George’s father.
While those scenes are fictionalized for the movie, sadly, it is true that two men gave their lives for the recovery effort. We already learned about Ronald Balfour, the man who the character of Donald Jeffries was based. But as we learned earlier, the character of Jean Claude Clermont was a fictional composite character of sorts to indicate the international help in the recovery efforts.
Well, the other man who perished wasn’t in the movie at all, but his name was Walter Huchthausen.
Do you remember in the movie where John Goodman’s character, Walter Garfield, and Jean Claude were heading when they first arrive in Europe? They were sent to Aachen, Germany.
Well, that’s where Walter was shot in April of 1945, just days before Victory in Europe Day.