Suppose it’s like aiming at fish in a barrel to name the many flaws in The Monuments Men, now playing in cinemas. There’s the failed Oceans 1944 sense of it – it’s a buddy movie with no true friends. There’s the cinematography that looks like a green-screen loop of some field in the San Fernando Valley, accented by some surprisingly flat Paris street scenes. There’s the absence of any love interest; indeed, so little love is lavished on the artworks recovered by the “Men” (with the essential help of one woman) that the viewer is left wondering what the fuss was about.
This lawyer feels compelled to focus on a different flaw, on how the film squandered an opportunity to raise awareness about the laws of cultural heritage and armed conflict.
At one point in “Monuments,” the leader of the American search team questions a German colonel. Captured while destroying medieval and Renaissance masterpieces that the Nazis had seized from churches, private collections, and public museums, this POW refuses to talk: “I have done nothing wrong, and pursuant to the Geneva Convention, soon I will be repatriated.” The American’s oh-no-you-won’t retort turns on the colonel’s earlier actions at a concentration camp. It is an odd turn, given the film’s ostensible concern with looted art.
Well before World War II, international injunctions against such destruction already were in place. Armies were bound to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and only permitted to attack the person and property of the former. Article 23(g) of the Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land, annexed to the 1899 Hague Convention (II) with Respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land and to its 1907 reiteration, deemed it
‘especially prohibited … [t]o destroy or seize the enemy’s property, unless such destruction or seizure be imperatively demanded by the necessities of war.’
Articles 25 and 28, dealing with attacks and pillage, reinforced this prohibition.
In short, the colonel’s actions respecting art were not just immoral. They were illegal, even then, a decade before the proscriptions were spelled out in detail via the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Given the continued violations of such proscriptions – Syria and Mali jump to mind – one wishes the movie had stressed this fact.
(credit for 1946 photo of Belgian Lt. Raymond Lemaire and Capt. Edith Standen, U.S. Women’s Army Corps (neither mentioned in the film), holding a portrait by Peter Paul Rubens, part of Smithsonian Institution online exhibit on the “Monuments” recoveries)
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On the role of an influential Monuments Woman, see this just-published article: Victoria Reed, “Ardelia Hall: From Museum of Fine Arts to Monuments Woman,” 21 International Journal of Cultural Property 79-93 (2014).