So, I said to George Clooney (because I was standing there in New York City’s Ziegfeld Theater lobby following the world premiere of “The Monuments Men,” and I was feeling a bit fiery): “Why did you write it that way?!”
Clooney said: “We needed a Frenchman.” He was calm and terrific-looking.
“But,” I insisted, “what was the point of killing a Frenchman?” If I hadn’t been a guest at the premiere and wearing my sophisticated long dress, my voice would have been more shrill.
To clarify, I added: “I’m asking because you’re the writer, not because I’m a relative of Walter Huchthausen.”
“Oh, Walter Huchthausen,” Clooney paused, then explained: “The movie is ‘based on’ the actual events, but, you understand, the film’s characters are meant to be representational. We usually didn’t even use real names.”
“I get that,” I said, as Clooney moved away from me and into the crush of premiere guests. He was at work, promoting a Hollywood movie. Maybe that’s the part he enjoys least. “Thanks,” I called out after him, “for bringing this story into the mainstream.”
Then I boarded the bus that carried me and two cousins to the sumptuous after-party. I toasted with champagne and ate delicious treats offered from small round trays by the Metropolitan Club’s uniformed staff. I felt dazzled by the glamour of the red-carpet evening.
I do understand that Clooney’s “The Monuments Men” was never intended to be a documentary. I know the literary devices that define and separate memoir and personal essay from fiction. Certainly, Truth may be presented in fiction even though the facts are manipulated. That’s one form of artistic expression.
Still, I am baffled.
Of the 350 men and women who dared to locate and reclaim the art treasures stolen by Nazis throughout Europe, only one American was killed and only one Englishman. Because I believe that many Americans learn their history lessons as shaped by the vivid images presented by Hollywood, I worry.
This movie is based on “The Monuments Men” and “Rescuing da Vinci,” nonfiction accounts written by Robert Edsel. He was at the party, too, and I asked him how he felt about the Hollywood-ization of his books. His face crumpled for only a moment before he regrouped. Edsel said he understands that the characters were developed to be interesting and compelling for audiences. He believes that the movie will inspire people to want to learn more and to investigate the history through the Monuments Men Foundation.
I return to Walter Huchthausen, the first-generation German-American who moved to Minneapolis in 1923 with his parents and siblings so his father could serve in a collaborative ministry alongside his pastor brother (my grandfather) at Trinity First Lutheran Church, near S. 12th Street and Franklin Avenue.
Walter graduated from our University of Minnesota and from Harvard, and eventually he returned to the U’s School of Architecture to teach and design. Ultimately, he was recruited into the allies’ MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives) section because of his areas of expertise in architecture and art history.
The unique fact of Walter’s life was that it ended violently, in a shower of machine-gun fire in Aachen, Germany, in April — only weeks before the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945.
At the risk of becoming a shill for the publicity juggernaut propelling “The Monuments Men,” I’ll say this: See the movie if you’re interested in envisioning the context and atmosphere of “the greatest art heist in history.” Be charmed by Matt Damon’s character as a GI who sincerely attempts to speak French. Appreciate Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of a brave spy, the Everywoman of the film.
But don’t forget Walter — the American, architect, professor and watercolorist who left Minneapolis and was gunned down at age 40 while he worked on a project he must have valued highly. Because that’s a different story.
Lucia Wilkes Smith is a peace activist and writer in Minneapolis.