The Last Vermeer

I love history, it is where some of the most amazing stories get told and they are not fiction. While you always want to be careful about taking a feature film as authoritative on a subject, many of them do reflect events fairly accurately or at least convey the essence of that history. This is a story I’d not heard of, it is apparently largely true, and it worked twice as well for me because I have never encountered it before. This independent film was the only new film opening this last week and as soon as I saw who the star was, I was ready to commit. 

Set immediately at the conclusion of the war in Europe in 1945, Captain Joseph Pillar of the Canadian military,  who is a Dutch Jew, has returned home to locate art treasures plundered by the Nazi’s during the occupation. After discovering a Vermeer, in Goring’s personal collection, he attempts to track down how this piece of art ended up in the hands of Hitler’s second in command. The story appears at first to be a mystery about collaborators in Amsterdam,  who allowed these treasures to be taken in return for money and special treatment by the invaders. Pillar tracks this painting as a legitamate sale, through brokers and others in the Dutch art community.  Here he encounters Han van Meegeren, an unsuccessful artist who somehow seems to have thrived during the war. 

The interviews and cat and mouse games played out in the first third of the story suggest that the film is headed in a particular direction, but of course there is a turn that drives the rest of the story in a very different direction . Van Meergeren is played by Guy Pearce, an actor who has always been a favorite of mine. Han is a contradictory personality,  he faces execution for collaboration with the enemy, but seems to be a charming, slightly eccentric social climber, who was popular in the party circuit,  despite being perceived as a mediocre talent. Pearce plays him as aloof from the threat he faces and distracted as he tries to continue painting while incarcerated.  Pillar and his partner are befuddled a bit by this attitude and they delve deeper into the events that lead them to Han in the first place.

As I said, there is a twist that alters the relationship between Han Van Meergeren and Captain Pillar. When the film focuses on that relationship,  it usually works well. Unfortunately,  we get a back story about Pillar and his wife during the war, and there is a potential Romance between him and his art curator assistant Mina. The Captain is played by Danish actor Claes Bang, and he is sullen, guilt ridden and not really very interesting.  When the focus of his role changes, he doesn’t seem to be very motivated.  Maybe the first time director Dan Friedkin, didn’t see that his leading man was coming off like a stiff. It is additionally problematic because Pearce is infusing his character with a sly energy that firs the way the story ultimately plays out. 

There is a creepy side story about the Dutch government trying to punish the collaborators, and it is represented by two characters that add to some confusion at the end. There is an obstinate judge who seems uninterested in justice and more committed to the government’s narrative than he should be. Then there is the police detective who claims jurisdiction over the case and motivates the trial in the last third of the story. He comes across like the Dutch version of the Gestapo, rather than a dedicated civil servant. There is one more twist and I can’t say I quite understood what point was being made. I am also unclear as to how accurate it is to the real story. 

As I said at the start, what makes this film worth seeing is not necessarily the drama but rather the history.  Regardless of motivations,  Han Van Meergeren seems to have been a brilliant artist,  unappreciated for those talents but remembered for his cleverness.  The film has accomplished at least one objective,  I want to read the book this is based on and find out more about this less known aspect of WWII.

The Monuments Men

The reviews have not been great and the buzz almost killed this for me. Then two things happened to make me once again want to see this movie. I read a review from one of the sites that I visit (which I usually avoid if I am planning on seeing the film) and I saw a repeat of the original story on CBS Sunday morning from four or five years ago. The story of what American forces were trying to do during WW II to save art history was compelling in a 6 minute slot on a news show, so how could this be a problem? I also trust the taste of my blogging colleague Keith and the Movies, and he was very enthusiastic. So since it is President’s Day and I had the morning off before class this evening, I went ahead and saw this terrific film. (Thanks Keith)

“Monuments Men” tells the story of a small group of Allied art experts who were tasked with trying to locate the art that Hitler had looted from across Europe. There are some back-story inserts about particular works of art that are then used as focus points for the dramatized version of the story. I suppose if you read the book that the film is based on, you would get a clearer idea of what was fiction and what was invented. I think I can pick out enough of the dramatic bits to say that this  film is mostly an imposition of plot on top of a real world story. The plot is serviceable enough and even better, it highlights the elements that make you proud to be an American. As the CBS story pointed out, we did not take these works back to American Museums, we tried to return them to their rightful places. The story also mentioned that art pieces are still appearing seventy years later, in private collections and the work of clearing the legacy of theft is ongoing.

George Clooney stars in and directed, from a script he co-wrote. When he did “Good Night, and Good Luck”, he was the toast of the town, by the time he did “Leatherheads” he was just toast. His last few films as director have not been well received. I did not see the “Ides of March” but I think I know what turns some other critics off. He keeps the story straight and does not shy away from sentiment. Cynicism is the coin of the realm in critical circles and there is not an ounce of it in “Monuments Men”. There are clear heroes and villains and a task that is difficult. Sometimes a race to the treasure aspect or a dramatic incident is used to make the audience stay invested, but never in a way that talks down to them. His style may be just too direct and workmanlike to please cineastes, but the average film goer should be plenty satisfied with this story.

I especially enjoyed the pairings in the film that carry much of the entertainment value. Clooney and Damon play off one another like the frequent partners they have been. John Goodman and Jean Dujardin have a nice sequence in a truck that plays up humor at first and then tragedy.  Bill Murray and Bob Balaban get the most opportunities to make us smile, both in the warm embrace of home and the smug satisfaction of besting an evil opponent or a scared kid, and knowing the difference. The truth is that all of the real Monuments Men were in a real war with real bullets flying. There are sometimes a few too many words in the speeches that tell us how important this project is, but they are sincere words and I did not think they hurt the story at all.

I guess one of the criticisms is that by being so sincere the film plays flat. I found it refreshing that the soldiers did the same kinds of things I member seeing in B & W WWII films starring John Wayne, Errol Flynn or a dozen other stars from the forties. No one takes out a baseball bat and pounds the truth out of someone, they use deception, reason and righteous anger to get the job done. There are several points where the story does have to payoff given the way the script is written, and those outcomes were fairly satisfying to me. In a flash forward coda, I thought at first I was seeing an amazing make up job but than I realized the director managed to get his father into the film and that was a kick. The former host of AMC, before commercials and “Breaking Bad” was a nice presence and suggests just how heartfelt the whole enterprise was.