Claire Simone, as portrayed by Cate Blanchett in the movie “The Monuments Men,” is something of a reluctant participant in an Allied scheme to rescue stolen works of art from the Nazi villains in the closing stages of World War II.
That’s really unfair to the memory of the woman upon whom the character is based – the real-life Rose Valland.
Actually, Mlle. Valland (pronounced “Vay-an”, if my French serves me) had been risking her life daily, documenting the art taken by the Nazis, for at least four years before the scene where American army Lt. James Granger (Matt Damon) approaches her for help in 1944.
Contrary to the glamorous Ms. Blanchett, the real Rose Valland was a schoolmarm with mousy brown hair and an unassuming manner. About her only similarity with Ms. Blanchett, 44, is age; Mlle. Valland was 45 then.
Valland, a blacksmith’s daughter, graduated from school with a teaching degree. She was interested in art and history, and the two disciplines came together for her when in 1932 she became a volunteer assistant at the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in central Paris. The Jeu de Paume (French for “tennis court”, which is what the building originally was built for) is a museum for contemporary art – and it is located at the far end of the Tuileries gardens from the famed Louvre.
Mlle. Valland worked as a volunteer for nine long years before she finally got a paying job at the museum, as the overseer. By then, the Nazi occupation of Paris had begun, and the Germans were busy compelling Jews to sell artistic treasures for joke prices – before shipping them (the Jews) off to concentration camps. What the Nazis couldn’t buy, they just stole. The plan was to ship the looted art off to Germany, where Adolf Hitler was thinking about opening a super-museum to display it all.
Between the Germans and their evil master plan were patriots like Mlle. Valland; she was uniquely positioned at the Jeu de Paume, where the Nazis planned to store their looted art treasure – and to burn the so-called Degenerate Art of contemporary artists that Hitler hated. She was able to keep track of what the Nazis were up to, and to communicate that information to the French Resistance. The Americans came rather late to the party, although they did play an instrumental role in finally defeating the Nazis and their plans.
The Germans thought they could speak freely around Mlle. Valland, because they thought she was clueless and didn’t understand their language. Wrong! From them, she learned what was happening to the 20,000 art objects the Nazis stashed in her museum. She knew where the Nazis planned to ship them, and she alerted the Resistance, so the trains loaded with art would be spared attack, if not turned back.
In fact, just prior to the Allied takeover of Paris in 1944 she alerted the Resistance to a final shipment of artworks to Germany by rail. The Resistance tricked the Nazis by routing the train in endless circles around Paris until the Allies arrived. (This choice ruse was detailed in a book Mlle. Valland wrote after the war, Le Front de l’Art; it became the inspiration for the 1964 film “The Train.”)
After the war, Mlle. Valland continued her quest to locate and protect looted art, and to have it returned to its rightful owners. Though she was just one of perhaps 300 people – including a dozen women – engaged in this endeavor, she was credited with personally saving and recovering more than 30,000 art objects. Her brave exploits have been the subject of many French books, scholarly articles and movies (including The Rape of Europa and Pictures at an Exhibition).
She continued her work up until – and even after – her retirement in 1968. When she died in 1980, at age 81, France had bestowed upon her nearly every medal for bravery, dedication and valor they could. Even the United States awarded her the Medal of Freedom.
She is a French heroine on a par with Joan of Arc. It was a bit of a disservice of the movie to minimize her contribution, or portray her as a reluctant ally.
February 2, 2014