Art on the Big Screen

by Deroy Murdock
Seeking stolen art treasures — and Vermeer’s secret

Matt Damon, who starred in the title role of Saving Private Ryan in 1998, is back on the silver screen, this time saving private artwork — along with superior ensemble players, in director/co-star George Clooney’s new motion picture The Monuments Men. This is one of at least two worthy films on the Nazis’ abuse of art and one of a pair of current movies that concern — both tangentially and profoundly — the work of Dutch master Johannes Vermeer.

The Monuments Men is the true story of a U.S. Army unit that scoured Europe in search of priceless artworks that the Nazis snatched from museums, private collections, and even the homes of their victims — often Jews who sold these items at scandalously low prices while fleeing for their lives. Those less fortunate had these items stripped from their abandoned homes after they were arrested, often never to return.

Entertaining and suspenseful, The Monuments Men delivers as a whodunit or, more accurately, “where-did-he-hide-them?” These gallery-grade GIs traverse ancient churches, vacant castles, and empty mines in search of the cultural treasures that Adolf Hitler swiped. These uniformed art historians, architects, curators, and similar specialists encounter intriguing and threatening surprises as they advance toward and roll into Germany, just behind (and sometimes slightly ahead of) the Allied liberators. They do so while carrying rifles rather than chisels, easels, and palettes.

While this band of aesthetic brothers early on resembles an almost whimsical cadre of well-armed docents, they soon face real danger and deadly peril. They repeatedly confront this question: Is it worth facing Nazi gunfire to rescue framed canvases and carved hunks of marble?

This picture’s cinematography, European locales, and a jaunty martial score are all first rate. So are the performances by Damon, Clooney, Bill Murray, John Goodman, and other actors from either side of the Atlantic.

While The Monuments Men is not quite a comedy, the film has its lighter moments. Credit for this goes to screenwriters George Clooney and Grant Heslov as well as the terrific cast. These fine actors evidently enjoy one another’s company. The erudite, elegant troupe movingly depicts a cultured and courageous crew of soldiers who pulled the landmarks of Western civilization from the ashes of National Socialism.

An outstanding and even more gripping thriller overlaps with The Monuments Men, virtually sharing one scene and, more or less, a common character. In 1964’s The Train, Burt Lancaster portrays an industrious French railway dispatcher. He tries to prevent an art-savvy Nazi colonel (Paul Scofield in The Train; Justus von Dohnányi in The Monuments Men) from transporting stolen French masterpieces to Switzerland, where the Nazis hoped to have them auctioned off to raise money for Hitler’s waning war effort. John Frankenheimer (of Manchurian Candidate fame) directed the chest-thumping action and the bracing black-and-white images. Savor The Train at home and then see The Monuments Men on the big screen.

Several works by Johannes Vermeer — one of the most celebrated artists of the Dutch Golden Age — pop up briefly in The Monuments Men. Inventor and businessman Tim Jenison admired Vermeer for years and wondered how his 17th-century paintings could resemble super-detailed, 21st-century photographs. Did Vermeer simply have spectacular hand-eye coordination and incredible brushes, or did he harness unknown tools to craft his impossible oeuvre?

Jenison tries to solve this riddle in Tim’s Vermeer, narrated by magician and provocateur Penn Jillete (of Penn and Teller fame) and directed by Teller, Jillette’s silent partner in illusions and mirth. This documentary follows Jenison — essentially a genial, if obsessive, scientist — as he uses geometry, optics, computer models, a visit to David Hockney, and the skills he developed as a successful entrepreneur to unlock Vermeer’s secrets. Jenison then attempts to duplicate the Dutchman’s oil painting The Music Lesson.

Tim’s Vermeer offers historical, scientific, and artistic insights that will reward viewers who make the effort to find this fascinating film, which is in very limited release. Watching months and months pile up as Jenison struggles to reproduce The Music Lesson, one concludes that even if Vermeer “cheated” by using more than mere brushes and paint, then technological genius (especially for the mid 1600s), boundless patience, and relentless precision were more than enough to distinguish him as a Dutch master.

 ​ Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University.