“Woman in Gold”—A Glimmer of Retribution
The movie “Woman In Gold” is based on the remarkable story of the octogenarian Austrian-American woman, Maria Altmann (played by the always sensational Helen Mirren). Maria fights to reclaim the Gustav Klimt masterpiece of her aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy art collector of Klimt paintings. “Portrait of the Jewess Adele”. More popularly known as “The Woman in Gold”, this masterpiece was the Austrian equivalent of the “Mona Lisa”.
Art repatriation–the return of art looted or stolen from its country of origin or former owners (or their heirs)—is just becoming a political maelstrom. In “Woman of Gold” (and other films such as “Monument Men”), we see the cultural and national pride shown by mostly US and European museums, which currently house stolen art from their wartime and colonial past. During World War II, the Nazis plundered an estimated 750,000 artworks including priceless paintings by Van Gogh, Degas, Vermeer, and Michelangelo. Though many paintings and other significant cultural artifacts were recovered by the “Monuments Men,” many were destroyed or auctioned off at extremely low prices. In “Woman of Gold” we are privy to the confrontation between and among the Austrian government, Austrian Gallery and Museum (formerly the Belvedere Palace), the U.S. Supreme Court and Maria Altman.
Seeking justice for the Nazis’ seizure of her wealthy family’s art collection, almost six decades later (1998) Maria engages the legal counsel of a young inexperienced American lawyer (the surprising Ryan Reynolds). They petition the Austrian government for the return of five paintings by Gustav Klimt, including the most famous, “Portrait of Adele”. Mirren is a formidable power to be reckoned with. Supported by Ryan Reynolds (as her attorney, Randall Schoenberg), Daniel Brühl, a sympathetic Austrian journalist) and Tatiana Maslany (superb as the twenty-year-old Maria), we see a finely-honed film about the little guy against the establishment.
The courtroom drama is only one of the plots in “Woman of Gold”, an equally interesting subplot being the personal backstory of Maria Altmann. In a series of flashbacks we see Maria with her privileged banker family, forced to suffer unspeakable hardship and humiliation in Nazi Vienna. These paintings are a fight for her birthright and her family’s dignity, which eclipses the $20 million value of the “Woman in Gold”. Also essential in understanding his determination to pursue the case to the Supreme Court is the young attorney’s backstory.
“Woman in Gold” is appealing on several levels: as history, narrative, and as emotional gratification that retribution does happen sometimes. Maria’s story is also a poignant one, of memory, family ties, and growing old. Highly recommended for a broad audience!
Note: In June 2006 “Woman in Gold” was purchased for the Neue Galerie in Manhattan for the record sum of 135 million dollars and is now part of the permanent collection on view there.