This February, pop culture seems to be making an attempt to take us back about 70 years ago when World War II was being waged in Europe and in Asia. George Clooney’s The Monuments Men opened before Valentine’s Day, and Brian Percival’s film adaptation of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief opened on Wednesday in local cinemas. Meanwhile, on Friday, Carlos Celdran did his fifth annual “Manila Transitio 1945” tour, which remembers the bombing and devastation of Manila, ending with the release of spirit lanterns into the night sky.
The Monuments Men got a nasty 34 percent rating from the Rotten Tomatoes website which I felt was rather severe. I think the film harkens back to the good things I remember from cinema, maybe 30 to 40 years ago: When heroes were “real” people who didn’t have superhuman fighting skills, unbreakable bones, or bullet dodging abilities—but they had heart and a sense of humor. When stories were simpler and the editing didn’t have to be slick or clever or too artsy—it just had to move the story forward. You have an impeccable cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, and a story that needed to be told. So there’s nostalgia for that type of filmmaking and nostalgia for the era and people it is set in.
Adolf Hitler wanted to horde many of the artistic treasures of Europe—from churches, from the private collection of Jews, from anywhere he fancied—and move them to a yet to be built Hitler Museum. However, as tides of war seemed to be shifting away from his favor, he left instructions for the destruction of the art should he or Germany fall.
The job of the Monuments Men was to save all that valuable art and return it. Frank Stokes’ (Clooney’s character) statement sums it up: “If you destroy their achievements, their history, it’s like they never existed.”
It’s sad the achievements in art, architecture and urban planning of pre-war Manila could not be saved—it is a loss we continue to struggle with.
The Book Thief is a work of fiction set amidst very real events—the formation of the Hitler Youth, the rounding up of Jews, the burning of books with ideas Hitler felt would threaten the Reich, and the aftermath Olympic victory of Jesse Owens. It is a tale of ordinary folk finding their humanity while war wages in their midst.
The story is a reflection on death (and consequently, life) and the enduring power of stories and the written word. It follows the experiences of a young girl named Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) just before and after the Second World War. She lives with her adoptive parents Rosa and Hans, develops a bond with her best friend Rudy and a Jewish boy they harbor, Max.
The film itself is sweet (and simple) and Geoffrey Rush as Hans Hubermann is a joy to watch.
World War II had its share of horrible villains but it also had heroes everywhere. Might be a good time to take a look back.