Monday, March 11, 2013

Burt Lancaster, George Clooney, Stolen Art and Monuments Men

The Train with Burt Lancaster is one of my favorite films. This 1964 black and white beauty directed by John Frankheimer and also starring Paul Schofield tells of an attempt by the Germans to transport art masterpieces stolen from French museums and private collections to Germany in August of 1944.

Lancaster plays Labiche, a railroad stationmaster, who is also a member of the French resistance. Initially he is reluctant to join an attempt to stop the train but after a friend of his is executed (for trying to stop the train) by the German’s he joins the effort.

He is to try to stop the train with the stolen art from leaving France, but to do so without destroying it. As we have seen, even recently, one of the casualties of war and conflict is art and cultural and historical artifacts.

Schofield plays Colonel von Waldheim, who is trying to get the paintings to Germany.

The plot involves an elaborate ruse of misidentifying railroad stations so that it appears the train is headed to Germany when in fact it is not.

The film is fiction but is based on a real event. On August 1, 1944, the Germans did indeed attempt to take some of France’s greatest paintings back to Germany by train. They did not succeed as the French resistance through the use bureaucratic red tape and paperwork delayed the train until Paris was liberated. What actually happened was not as dramatic as the film.

This was not the only historical event involving art and World War II and not the only one to be depicted in film.

George Clooney is currently in Germany filming The Monuments Men.

At the same time that the French Resistance was trying to prevent stolen art masterpieces from being transported to Germany a group of allied military men who were also museum directors, curators, art historians and other art professionals were seeking to preserve and safeguard as much of the historic and cultural monuments from war damage, and as the conflict came to a close, to find and return works of art and other items of cultural importance that had been stolen by the Nazis or hidden for safekeeping.

These amazing volunteers came to be known as The Monuments Men, working in small numbers at the front lines or even behind enemy lines to do their job.

Countless monuments, churches, and works of art were saved or protected by these dedicated men.

The film is based on a book by Robert Edsel, which chronicles some of these men and their efforts. The film is set for release in December of this year – yes in time to qualify for Oscar consideration.

In addition to starring in the film, Clooney co-wrote the screenplay and is producing and directing. It also features a powerhouse cast: Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin (of The Artist), Bob Balaban and Cate Blanchett. She plays Rose Valland who was a French art historian and an amazing person as well.

Valland, at great risk to herself, secretly catalogued the art the Nazis were stealing and was the one that notified the French Resistance of the train that was to transport much of the art to Germany in August 1944 – the event that prompted the above referenced film, The Train. In addition to being a member of the French Resistance, she was a captain in the French Army and was one of the most highly decorated women in French History.

Okay, I can’t wait to see this one.

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