Follow Us on Twitter

The Monuments Men - Robert M Edsel interview (exclusive)

Robert M Edsel

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ROBERT M Edsel, author of The Monuments Men, talks exclusively about the importance of George Clooney’s film version of his book and what it was like to collaborate on the project with him and Grant Heslov.

He also discusses the importance of learning from the history lessons the monuments men have taught us and where we have failed to do so, especially in Iraq. And he recalls talking to the real veterans and how much they taught him about their role in preventing Hitler from wiping out the history of those he sought to conquer and kill.

Q. What was your collaboration process like with George Clooney? And how did you feel when he first approached you about turning your book into a film?
Robert Edsel: Well, obviously it was a great moment when I got the call. And then within a few weeks after that I was asked to come out and spend a week with him and Grant Heslov discussing really the whole work. In fact, Grant referred to it as the ‘brain dump, where we discussed a lot about the book but much more so the thousands of documents and hours of interviews and things that I needed to be able to distil it down because there was no way we could cover it all. I’d just finished the manuscript for my most recent book, Saving Italy, and while the film doesn’t address that save one subject I kind of loaned them from the book, it was important to have some sense of how that whole operation transpired because obviously American and British forces were in North Africa and Italy before the Normandy landings, which is where our story really takes place.

I worked with them thereafter… the script is really their product on their canvass as storytellers, giving them critique and comments as they sent me the scripts, discussing it. I was very pleased and frankly honoured that they always heard me out. We didn’t always agree on everything but agreed on a lot of things. And a lot of times I deferred to their sense of judgement because they had the expertise telling a story on film where my canvass is writing and speaking about it.

And then I was on set on three separate occasions. It wasn’t like I was sitting there directing anybody or anything but sometimes things would come up and I’d be able to make a comment they thought was helpful. So, it’s been a wonderful process. And then there’s been a tremendous collaboration both with the actors – and George and Grant in particular – and then Sony and Fox on the marketing of the film and trying to find ways of engaging all the different culture institutions that these monuments men and women, both American and British and other countries, influenced both before and after the war. I mean in London I can walk down to The National Gallery, I can go to the V&A, I can go to Courtauld… there’s monuments officers that worked or taught or had jobs at every one of these institutions.

So, our idea at the beginning was that it’s not an American story, it’s not a British story, it’s a story about humanity that’s a great moment in time that we’ve never repeated since. Everybody has a connection to the story, they just don’t know it yet. So, part of my role is to go and show everyone that, hey, this person worked here and that person worked somewhere you know. So, we sent out 100 letters to cultural institutions all over the United States and made some calls here in Europe to make sure that people knew ‘you’ve got someone who was one of these people, we hope you’ll talk about that’. Let’s figure out who we should thank and go about doing that because it never got done before.

Q. You mentioned at the earlier press conference that the returning of art hasn’t happened since the monuments men did that during the Second World War [the victors didn’t keep the spoils]. Why is that? Why aren’t the lessons of history being learnt?
Robert Edsel: Yeah, well, it’s worse than that. The worst part is I don’t think there’s ever been that sense of respect for cultural treasures of other countries. There are a lot of horrible examples but the worst one of most recent times is in the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, with the failure of leadership to make the protection of those cultural treasures a military priority. Look, everybody can understand that you have to protect the oil installations because the vehicles that people have got to get around in need oil. And protecting the electrical grid… how’s anyone going to do his job if he doesn’t have light to be able to see?

But that doesn’t come at the exception of protecting cultural treasures and my country paid a horrible price in the world of public opinion – and we’re not talking about 10,000 people, we’re talking about probably a billion people in the world who were angry and had all sorts of theories from ineptitude – and that would be a fair accusation – to a deliberate effort to not do this because it was Islamic works of art. That’s ridiculous. I wish there had been some meeting where at least people talked about it because then we’d have the historical record that we were at least aware of it. But we don’t.

There was an effort at the lower levels of the State Department and Defence Department but where it fails is in the bureaucracy because it can’t be a bottom up led effort. It worked during World War II because President Roosevelt said this is a priority and General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander of American and British Forces – and again, this is not an American operation – said that we’re going to protect cultural treasures so much as war allows. Prime Minister Churchill was entirely supportive of it, even Kenneth Clarke came around… initially, thinking it won’t work to understanding ‘OK, let’s give it a shot’. But we haven’t done that since then and everybody has suffered as a result of it – all of us because these works of art belong to all of us.

The absence of knowing about this story I think happens partly due to the fact that these monuments officers jobs really just began at the end of the war because after they found these millions of things, it took years to sort through them and they don’t come home until 1951 and by the time they do, we’re already caught up in The Cold War, Korea is around the corner. World War II veterans, the one thing they don’t do is come home and brag about what they did during the war. And the monuments officers, the 17 I interviewed, all to the person, agreed, well all they did was their job – and we know they did more than that now. And they agree now that in hindsight it was probably a mistake not to be more vocal and talking about.

The Monuments Men

But I think perhaps it’s taken the passage of time for us to be able to put into perspective this epic story and understand and ask ourselves, like I did in 1996, what kind of world would we be living in if we hadn’t had those men do that. And when you think about the horrors that followed the aftermath of the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, not to make light of the difficulties there, but that was a small regional conflict. Imagine what Western Europe would look like if we hadn’t been thinking about doing this. So, the consequences are so painful and frightening that now we can look back and say thank God we did have people… we had leaders doing what only leaders can do: which is lead and pronounce this the responsibilities and priorities of the governments. And it worked just like a business. Nobody wants to disappoint the boss and get fired. But if the boss hasn’t said this is important, it’s going to die a slow death in bureaucracy and that explains a lot of the problems.

So, I think it’s time has come and it’s taken a lot of years on my part, and my small team’s part, to go out and convey this message over and over and over again, through a zillion different mediums. But I must say I haven’t done it as a job or work, although it has been 100% of my life, or as my friends refer to it, my non-income producing career. But it’s been out of passion and out of a belief that our world is going to be a better place because we’re going to know who these men and women were and maybe, if my ultimate goal can be realised through the world outreach of this film, we can inspire world leaders to re-establish that high standard and engage the public for their help and identifying missing works of art and getting them back, and more so to have everybody no longer take for granted when we go to museums that these things are always going to be there – that we have to do some work ourselves and that we can use these tools of technology.

Look, if we did anything to help in Syria, we’d be doing more than we’re doing right now. So, it’s not going to take much to really move the needle here and I know we can do better. We can’t do worse. Sitting here and saying we can’t because we don’t have troops there… well, I’m not sitting here and passing judgement on this, we’re killing bad guys around the world with drones without having troops there, so there are alternative solutions here. I’m not talking about killing people that are destroying works of art but these drones could be used differently. And we can use laws to prosecute and make people think twice before going to do something like blowing up Buddhas and other things.

Q. How much did it mean to the monuments men you interviewed to finally have their story told? Or were they still reluctant to speak at that point?
Robert Edsel: Boy, I don’t know if anyone’s asked me that in a long, long time and it’s a great question and a hugely emotional question for me because it goes to the core of the work we’ve been doing which is – while we’re always talking about stuff – what we’re more focused on are people because this is a people story. And that’s what I’ve written about – these men and women who did this and trying to understand why they did it. I’ve learned from speaking to veterans, and I’m an extremely impatient person, I like to see progress, and I like to make things happen… but for whatever reason there’s some gene in my DNA that when I’m talking to these elderly people, I ask a couple of questions and then I just don’t say anything. But I’ll sit there with them for six or eight hours and they’ll usually talk for four, five, six hours because they realise I’m interested in hearing their story and I’m interested in listening.

My dad was a World War II veteran in The Pacific, and when we’re kids and know our parents were in the war, we ask the proverbial dumb questions – “oh, did you kill anybody?” And that’s not a question veterans like to have posed to them and if the answer is ‘yes’ and they did, they don’t like to think about it. They might have felt one way when it happened but the passage of time has left them with something that they’ll always feel a sense of regret about – it may have been necessary but it’s not something they look back with pride or brag about.

But I think elderly people are like heat-seeking missiles for people who really have an interest in listening. It’s why we see elderly people connect with 10-year-olds and 12-year-olds because they don’t have any sense of time and they like hanging out with elderly people. So, they all talk. It’s like they have a common language. And I happen to, in those circumstances, be so fascinated with what these elderly people have to say, and I learn so much, and they can sense that, and so they feel safe and they open up and they talk. And every time their kids my age come out and say: “Why in the world would they tell it to you because they never would tell it to me?” I’d say: “Well, you’re busy. I am outside this arena. You have kids and you’re hassled and you ask a question but you’re looking at your phone. So, they won’t talk to you like that because they realise that you don’t really want to listen.” If they’re going to open up, they’re going to expect you to sit there and listen for as long as they’re willing to talk. I’ve had a lot of practice with that and, like I say, they have a good sense of that.

The Monuments Men, Harry Ettlinger with a Rembrandt

I’ve had these monuments officers tell me, Harry Ettlinger (pictured with a Rembrandt) has told me, and I’ve had so many of their kids my age tell me that they’ve lived extra years of their life. They have had the rarest of experience for elderly people, which is something to look forward to instead of feeling worse through illness. I’ll answer the question differently in a funny way.

Last night as we were flying into London, all of the actors were tired, they’ve been on a heck of a circuit and many of them are coming from film sets they’ve been working on… we’ve been going 90mph for a month solid. I’m a lot younger than Harry Ettlinger is, and so are all the actors. Harry is 88-years-old. And we asked him last night at 11.30pm as we were getting ready to land – and he’s been on this caravan for the past four days – “how are you holding up?” He said: “Terrific! I’m the luckiest man alive! I’ve never felt better!” You don’t hear many 88-year-olds say that. I mean, yes he’s got pretty good health but this has invigorated him and validated a part of his life that he never thought was special. In many ways he still doesn’t because all he felt he was doing was his duty. But we know in hindsight that it was really much more than that.

Q. How much did talking to the veterans help you to understand one of the fundamental questions behind the film: is a single piece of art worth a human life?
Robert Edsel: It’s everything. It’s the letters… for the monuments officers who are still alive, it’s the conversations. For the monuments officers that I couldn’t interview because they are gone, it’s their letters home during the war. Otherwise, what are we left with? Facts, figures, etc, academic tellings… I think people that read academic tellings are other academics. The problem is that many academics think that if I wrote about it, then everyone knows. Well they don’t and the problem is not everyone thinks like you think. There’s nothing wrong with thinking the way you do, it’s just that most people don’t think that way. Most people come to it like I did. They don’t know anything about art or history per se, training wise, they’ve been to a few museums and think it’s probably bad if a few works of art get destroyed. But they’re very interested in World War II, can’t believe there’s any part of it they haven’t heard something about… so, the idea that we have a story here that is an epic story they don’t know about – that’s already got everyone’s attention.

And then the question is can we tell it like it happened? In other words, don’t fancify, don’t complicate it… I’m not talking about dumbing down… I’m in no way talking about dumbing down. I’m just saying, tell the story as it happened and if we can use their words, the ones that I’ve gathered from talking to them, or the ones they wrote down to describe their experiences, then man the sense of excitement jumps off the pages. I always felt as the writer of this that the only challenge I had was to figure out a way to get out of the way of the story and not try and inject it with my views on all of those and just try and tell it as narratively as I could based on what I found. And it’s those documents and those letters with the interviews that this question of ‘is art worth a life’? emerges.

And I think the person who phrased it best, which I only discovered in my last book Saving Italy, was a monuments officer who was in Italy, Deane Keller, who was 42-years-old, like I was when I was in Italy, with a three-year-old son at home – I had a three-year-old son who was with me when I was living in Italy. But he said: “I don’t believe there’s a single work of art in the world that’s worth the life of one boy. But is it worth risking your life fighting for a cause? Absolutely!” And that is the lens we should look at this question through. And I believe what the monuments men and women who volunteered for this accepted from the beginning is, we would risk our lives fighting for democracy and we would risk our lives fighting for freedom for speech and we will risk our lives trying to preserve the great cultural treasures that belong to all of us – that’s a cause, much as none of them wanted to have it happen like it did to [Capt] Ronald Balfour or [Capt] Walter Huchthausen, but it was a risk they were willing to take. And I think that’s an important distinction.

There’s this glamorous aspect of “yeah, I’ll run into the building and run out with the Mona Lisa”. As much as we all love the Mona Lisa, it’s not worth it. But if you’re doing it because it’s part of this cause, and that ends up being a consequence, I think it’s everything about the reason why you’re doing it – and that’s what emerged to me. And I only really discovered that about a year and a half ago in the final research for Saving Italy that gave me another way to look at the question in a much, much bugger context and one in which everyone can embrace.

The Monuments Men

Q. I was at a junket for The Book Thief last week where both the film’s director, Brian Percival, and star Emily Watson commented on how our current generation coming up weren’t aware of The Holocaust at all, which I found shocking. So, from that perspective, how important is it to educate that generation and how important are films like The Monuments Men in doing so?
Robert Edsel: Well, it’s hugely important for two reasons. Firstly, going back to Baghdad in 2003, it only took 60 years for my country – at the leadership level because there were people below that really did everything right before the bureaucracy ground it down and because the CEO of our country, the president, hasn’t made it clear it’s the policy of the country. So, it only took 60 years for somebody in leadership to not know about it.

The other thing, as it relates to the Holocaust is, everybody always thinks about the murdering of people. The Holocaust begins much sooner than that. This is the most pernicious aspect of what the Nazis did: killing people wasn’t enough; they had to humiliate them first and [to do that] you’ve got to make sure they’re alive to watch the humiliation. So, how does it begin? Well, we’re going to incarcerate you, we’re going to strip you of everything that you own and incarcerate you and you can sit over there and watch. Now, we’re going to take all of these things that have defined your culture, whether they’re artistic objects, religious objects and the things that define who you are as a people, and while you’re alive we’re going to destroy it. In fact, we’re going to build racial institutes and some of the stuff we’re going to save and not destroy. We’re going to put it in there to demonstrate to people how sub-human you were. And now we’re going to kill you. The murdering is not enough.

So, if we only understand the murdering of six million Jews and so many other unacceptables to Hitler but don’t understand the role of the humiliation part and that The Holocaust begins at a much sooner level involving things because they’re not just things, they’re symbols of people, and they’re integrated with people, then we don’t really understand The Holocaust in my view. And that I think is the power of this film to so broadly understand and debate beyond where we’ve been in the past despite all that’s been written about it.

Read our review of The Monuments Men

Read our interview with George Clooney