George Clooney's Nazi Problem in ‘Monuments Men': It's Hard to Have Fun With Hitler

George Clooney's Nazi Problem in 'Monuments Men': It's Hard to Have Fun With Hitler

“Monuments Men” joins films ranging from “The Producers” to “Life Is Beautiful” in trying to blend comedy with the Third Reich

George Clooney wasn't kidding when he said he was having a hard time finding the right tone for “The Monuments Men.”

The director-star confessed he was struggling to find the right balance between comedic elements and serious World War II subject matter during a conversation with TheWrap's Editor-in-Chief, Sharon Waxman, shortly before the movie was delayed late last fall. Now that his movie's finished it's easy to see what he was talking about. A cross between “Hogans Heroes” and “Ocean Eleven,” the reverse heist movie aims for a breezy tone, but is uneven at best.

In his review, Wrap critic Alonso Duralde observed that “the storytelling is all over the place,” and said it was desperately crying out for an old-fashioned rewrite. The retro movie, about soldiers intent on rescuing stolen art in the waning days of World War II, didn't win much critical support elsewhere, rating 30 percent on Rotten Tomatoes opening day; critics dinged “Monuments Men” for unsteady sense of purpose, among other failings.

Also read: George Clooney Struggles With Tone of ‘Monuments Men': ‘It's Been a Bit of a Dance’ (Exclusive)

producers-springtime-hitler-original-insetTo be fair, it's awfully difficult to blend comedy and Nazis. There's a reason Mel Brooks devised “Springtime for Hitler” (right) as a guaranteed failure in “The Producers”: It's hard to have fun with Hitler and the Third Reich given all the Jews that died during World War II.

But that hasn't stopped Hollywood from trying over the years. “The Monuments Men” follows fare ranging from “Kelly's Heroes” to Quentin Tarantino's “Inglourious Basterds.”

Here are 10 earlier World War II movies that have balanced comedy and serious drama, with varying degrees of success:

great-dictator-charlie-chaplin-inset1. “The Great Dictator”: Charlie Chaplin played a dictator and Jewish barber in this 1940 satire, made before America entered the war.
2. “Which Way to the Front”: Jerry Lewis starred and directed in this 1970 movie about a rich man who impersonates a Nazi officer to try and kill Hitler after getting rejected by the U.S. Army.
3. “Kelly's Heroes”: Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland and Don Rickles are American soldiers who try and sneak behind enemy lines to steal Nazi treasure in this 1970 movie.
4. “Jakob the Liar”: Robin Williams plays a Jewish shopkeeper who disseminates fictitious news bulletins in this 1999 movie, which never found an audience or much favor with critics.
hogans-heroes-inset5. “Hogan's Heroes”: This mid-1960s series starring Bob Crane and Richard Dawson poked endless fun of the Nazis running a prisoner of war camp, earning two supporting actor Emmys for Werner Klemperer (left with Crane), a Jewish refugee from Germany.
6. “To Be or Not to Be”: First released in 1942, this Ernest Lubitch movie starring Carole Lombard and Jack Benny revolves around an acting troupe in Nazi-occupied Poland that gets caught up in political intrigue. Mel Brooks starred in the 1983 remake with his late wife Anne Bancroft.
7. “Mister Roberts”: This 1955 adaptation of a Broadway play avoids the messier elements of WWII by virtue of its setting; the action revolves around a ship in the Pacific. Henry Fonda and James Cagney star, along with Jack Lemmon as the incorrigible Ensign Pulver.
christoph-waltz-inglourious-basterds-inset8. “Life Is Beautiful”: Now known as the movie that won Robert Begnini his seat-climbing Oscar, “Life Is Beautiful” centers on an Italian man (Begnini) who must use his sense of humor to protect his son in a concentration camp. Begnini also directed the 1997 film.
9. “Inglourious Basterds”: Tarantino's zesty Hitler revenge fantasy earned Christoph Waltz (left) his first Oscar for his performance as SS Officer Hans Landa, and the director his highest gross since “Pulp Fiction.” Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender co-star in the 2009 film, whose name is an homage to a 1978 Italian movie.
the-producers-springtime-hitler-inset10. “The Producers”: First a 1967 movie starring Gene Wilder, then adapted into a Broadway hit, “The Producers” completed the circle as a film remake in 2005. “Curb Your Enthusiasm” incorporated the unlikely musical hit into one season, with Brooks and Bancroft popping up on Larry David's HBO comedy.

  • A.L. Hern

    “‘To Be or Not to Be': First released in 1942, this Ernest Lubitch movie starring Carole Lombard and Jack Benny revolves around an acting troupe in Nazi-occupied Poland that gets caught up in political intrigue. Mel Brooks starred in the 1983 remake with his late wife Anne Bancroft.”

    ERNST Lubitsch, Diane, not Ernest. And the problem with “Monuments Men” is less one of tone than the fact that there's no real emotional core to the film. Saving art treasures appeals more to the intellect than it does to the heart, something that's usually a graveyard for storytelling, irrespective of the nobility of intent.

    Rather than point to comedic, or semi-comedic World War II films, I would put forth the 1952 MGM film “Above and Beyond” as a model of what “Monuments Men” might've tried to be. Apart from its limitations as drama, “Above and Beyond” (ironically made by the writing and directing team of Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, whose output was almost exclusively comedies), the film concerned Col. Paul Tibbetts, who was tasked by his superiors to train the crews who would eventually drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Because every aspect of his assignment was beyond top secret, Tibbetts's estrangement from his wife and child practically tore his marriage and family apart, for the overriding reason that the secret had to be kept and the war won. It's an engrossing film (and perhaps the only one in which its star, the always wooden Robert Taylor, was used to his full, very limited potential), with that emotional core that tends to involve an audience and keep them watching which is, after all, why movie studios are in business.

  • hupto

    Good news: you mentioned KELLY'S HEROES.

    Bad News: You omitted the film's star, a fella named Clint Eastwood.