“Woman in Gold” (2015) is a must see film – not because of its cinematic excellence – because it is well made, tells an interesting and a shamefully contemporaneous story and because it stars Hellen Mirren. Hellen Mirren is a force of nature on the silver screen. Her portrayal of Maria Altman in “Woman in Gold” is no exception.
As the movie opens Maria Altman, a Holocaust survivor, is burying her husband. Maria immigrated to the United States from Austria, with her opera singer husband, to escape the horrors and certain death of Nazi-run Austria. She was a member of the successful, cultured, influential and wealthy Bloch-Bauer family. The Bloch-Bauers had earned their wealth and position in the sugar business. In addition to contributing significantly to the Vienna community, the family patronized the arts and accumulated a large collection of stellar objects d’art. Gustav Klimt, a nineteenth and early twentieth century Austrian artist, was commissioned by the Bloch-Bauer family to paint a portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Klimt, a symbolist painter, created the portrait of Adele during his “Golden Phase” in 1907. The portrait became known as the Woman in Gold. This portrait, and many others were confiscated by the Nazis along with other works by Klimt. Curiously, the Nazis had classified Klimt as a “degenerate” artist. This confiscation was one dimension of the Nazi campaign to eliminate and profit from the extermination of European Jewry. Untold thousands of Jewish-owned works of art were so commandeered.
“Woman in Gold” chronicles the Herculean effort by Maria Altman to regain rightful custody of stolen art – much of which had been seized by the post-war government of Austria. The Woman in Gold painting was an especially thorny issue as the Austrians considered it a national treasure. Even though Altman was able to prove provenance for the painting, the Austrian bureaucracy interminably stone-walled her efforts to regain rightful ownership of the painting.
While Mrs. Altman was an older, middle-class, shop owner in the United States she had not forgotten the monumental loss that her family in Austria had suffered at the hands of the Nazis. The stolen art work in general, and the Woman in Gold portrait in particular, were simply tangible manifestations of the loss that she, and millions of others had suffered. In an attempt to petition for return of her rightfully-owned works of art Altman enlisted the support of the young, neophyte lawyer son of her friend Barbara. The son, Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), was neither equipped by training nor experience for the effort that was to follow. While the great grand-son of world-renowned Austrian, Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, Randy seemed to have a low level of interest in the task on the basis of his own heritage. None-the-less, Randy and Maria set out on a journey of almost impossible proportions.
The film employs flash-back sequences to establish the context in which Maria grew up (and the family thrived) in late 1930s Austria. Through these reenactments the audience gains an appreciation for the closeness of the Bloch-Bauer family and their place in pre-war European society. Adele Bloch-Bauer (Antje Traue) was Maria’s maiden Aunt and her trusted point of social and familial reference. Traue was well cast as a striking look-alike for the real-life Adele.
The hoops and hurdles that Randy and Maria had to clear were numerous and convoluted. The resources of the Austrian government and its various bureaucracies were formidable. It is clear from the outset that the return of the painting was less than unlikely. Maria and Randy ebb and flow in enthusiasm and came close to abandonment of their goal. As they were about to depart Austria in defeat they visited the Holocaust Memorial in Vienna. At that moment Randy recognized his personal connection to the circumstances that led to the horrors of the Holocaust and the symbolic importance of forcing the Austrian government to repatriate ill-gotten treasures to their rightful owners. We are also reminded at this juncture of the persistent denial by the Austrian government of their complicity in the extermination of untold millions of Jews, Gypsies, “defectives” and “degenerates” by the Nazi regime which they enabled.
“Woman in Gold” is far more than a story of regaining lost treasure – it is an obligatory retelling of the revulsion of genocide. Sadly, the world needs to be reminded of these crimes against humanity – crimes which people are all-too-willing to continue to commit.