In 2012, Bob Balaban ran into George Clooney and his producing partner, Grant Heslov, at the New York City premiere of Argo. The next day, the veteran character actor got a call asking whether he'd like to be in Clooney's next project, a World War II movie called The Monuments Men.
"I remember exactly what I thought," Balaban says. "There are so many stories about World War II, and most of them have been told already, and this seemed a very large and important story not to have ever been told."
It's also, to be fair, one of the war's more unusual stories. Art and antiquities experts hardly make for the typical subject of a Hollywood war film, but that's what the movie's eponymous subjects were. The men of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the Allied armies were charged with safeguarding cultural treasures threatened by the fighting and retrieving those stolen and stockpiled as future trophies for Adolf Hitler's bizarre conceit: the Führermuseum.
In the film, which opens Feb. 7, Balaban and Clooney--who directed and, with Heslov, co-wrote the script--star alongside Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin (the Best Actor Oscar winner from The Artist) and Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey's Lord Grantham) as fictionalized versions of the professional curators and art historians who donned fatigues to save works such as Michelangelo's Bruges Madonna, Vermeer's The Astronomer and Jan van Eyck's 15th century Ghent Altarpiece. What's also notable about The Monuments Men is that the story it's based on isn't over yet. As Robert Edsel, who wrote the book that inspired the movie, puts it, "At the war's ending, the work of the Monuments Men was really just beginning."
A Monumental Task
The movie doesn't go much beyond V-E day, but Edsel says the original Monuments Men--there were women in the unit too, though the film's only female star is Cate Blanchett, who plays a museum staffer--stayed in Europe into the 1950s, sorting through some 5 million items. After that, they returned to an America that had moved on to the Korean War, and they didn't boast about their accomplishments.
Harry Ettlinger served as a translator for the unit. When he thinks about the war, he remembers the 19-year-old infantryman who was the first in his training squad to be killed before he remembers the art he helped recover. "There were 16 million men and women in the armed forces of the United States during World War II. Don't you think that each one of them had a story?" asks Ettlinger, whose movie counterpart is played by Dimitri Leonidas. "A story like what Harry Ettlinger did is lost, and what [Monuments Men Captain James] Rorimer did, that was lost in this multitude of stories."
In the 1990s, that started to change as the looting side of the story became better known. Archives were newly available after the Cold War. Books like Lynn Nicholas' The Rape of Europa told the history of Nazi looting, and the restitution case centered on Egon Schiele's painting Portrait of Wally began. About the same time, Edsel began to wonder how the art that survived had done so, a line of inquiry that would eventually lead him to write The Monuments Men.