German Jew Harry Ettlinger took part in one of the greatest treasure hunts in history during his wartime service with the US Army, helping to recover five million pieces of looted Nazi art. Now, the exploits of Ettlinger and his comrades from 13 Allied nations, dubbed The Monuments Men, are the subject of a new film starring and directed by George Clooney.
Ettlinger, 88, is one of five survivors of the 350 men and women who tracked down the looted art, including works by Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Van Gogh.
Slightly plump, high-spirited and waving enthusiastically, he milks the applause as he follows members of the stellar cast into The Monuments Men press conference at London’s National Gallery.
But the room quickly falls silent as Clooney and co-stars including Matt Damon, John Goodman and Bill Murray focus on Ettlinger’s story — itself a tribute to colleagues who died in their attempt to recover paintings, sculptures, Torahs and triptych panels of religious art stolen in the name of Hitler, a failed art student, for the unrealised Führermuseum.
“Art makes life more meaningful, more enjoyable,” he says. “We would not like life with white walls around us. We, human beings, need culture around us. We cannot live in a world with white walls.”
As a Jew, Ettlinger was not allowed to visit the museum in his native Karlsruhe. Other than his grandfather, who was sent to Dachau, his family fled to New Jersey in September 1938 when he was 13.
“In his home town, Harry wasn’t allowed to see Rembrandt’s self-portrait, [but] he did find it later,” interjects Clooney, who goes on to praise British actor Dimitri Leonidas’s portrayal of Ettlinger as Private Sam Epstein in the film. “Harry, why don’t you tell the story of your grandfather’s drawings that you found,” Clooney then suggests.
“I was able to collect my grandfather’s print collection,” Ettlinger says. “He had 1,500 prints that go into the inside cover of books. During my stay in Germany, I took a Sunday drive to Baden Baden, the resort town, in a Jeep driven by a Holocaust survivor named Ike. I hadn’t told my sergeant, so technically, I was AWOL. That’s where I found the warehouse with my grandfather’s collection. We had a bit of a celebration and that night we ended up in the top suite in the best hotel in town.
“Here we were, a Holocaust survivor and an AWOL private, sleeping in a bed meant for the Kaiser of Germany. I’m very proud of that. I was able to do something for my family, in addition to doing something for my country — the USA.”
Unlike the Soviets, who kept recovered art as a form of reparation, the Allied troop of volunteers — who were predominately architects, professors and artists — were determined to return stolen items to their owners. This became more urgent towards the end of the war as the Nazis were ordered to destroy art under Hitler’s “Nero Decree” ordering the destruction of all German infrastructure.
“Hitler said: ‘If I die, destroy everything’ — bridges, railroad tracks, communications equipment — and that was taken to mean the art, too,” adds Clooney. In the film he plays Frank Stokes, based on art historian George Stout, who led the mission. “What we’re doing is talking about the work that Harry and all of his comrades did. I think that’s a very interesting story to tell.
“It wasn’t just that Hitler was trying to kill everyone. He was also trying to destroy their culture. Is art worth dying for? I don’t know if a single inanimate object is worth dying for. But if it means you’re trying to erase my history and say I never was here, then I think that very much is worth dying for.”
In the main, the action drama has stayed true to the stories that inspired it, says Robert Edsel, the author of Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. “In writing [the book], I hoped a film would be made. I wanted to reach the broadest audience possible. Academics lose perspective [because] they think everyone knows what they know — and they don’t.”
Clooney says alterations such as changing names and focusing on eight Monuments Men gave the producers some dramatic licence. “Obviously some of the people are recognisable. But we weren’t doing a documentary. We didn’t want to give these real men flaws that would in any way be upsetting to their families.”
While the backdrop to the action is poignant, the film, shot in Germany and England, also showcases the camaraderie and comedy associated with its stars. And there were pranks on the set. Although Damon had lost weight for his role, he still found it hard to fit into his costume. “I would have the wardrobe girl take in half-an-inch — and he was eating, like, a grape,” Clooney laughs. “Matt said he wanted to start losing a couple of pounds. He should have never told me that.”
Adds producer Grant Heslov — who co-wrote the script with Clooney and also produced the Oscar-winning Argo with him: “We always knew that we wanted to have humour in this piece. George and I grew up watching a lot of the war films of our youth and a lot of them have humour. These kind of guys dealt with the situation with humour.
“We always knew that we wanted to have some funny tone. But we also knew that we were dealing with a subject that was very serious in nature. It was a real balancing act.”
Clooney agrees, stressing: “We didn’t lose sight of the idea that we were talking about fairly important issues along the way.”