“Woman in Gold”—A Glimmer of Retribution

 

woman_in_gold_movie

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”.    475494-a2c85abe-0044-11e5-8cc7-4c6583bd2816

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.

 

Woman in GoldSeeking 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.

 

 

“The Debt”–Did We See the Same Movie?

In this remake of a popular 2007 Israeli movie, the genre label “espionage thriller” is an understatement.   The movie opens in 1997, as shocking news reaches retired Mossad agents Rachel and Stefan (married to each other but now divorced.)  Then “The Debt” moves quickly and chillingly between the 1960’s and 1997, in search for the Surgeon of Birkenau, a doppelganger for Mengele, the infamous Nazi general who masterminded the medical butchery of the Holocaust.

Helen Mirren, playing the courageous Mossad operative Rachel Singer, appears in 1997 for a book-signing celebrating her Mossad exploits retold by  her daughter Sara, who has eulogized her mother in a biography that recounts the heroic capture and slaying of Dieter Vogel,  Surgeon of Birkenau.  This is no typical role for Mirren but she is stunning as the sixty-something action hero in this testosterone-drenched gritty film.  That alone makes this film a groundbreaking example for future roles for actresses of Mirren’s stature and caliber.

The story requires two sets of actors–three actors in their twenties who play the youthful Mossad agents of the 1960’s and the three who play the same agents in their sixties almost thirty years later (1997).  Sam Worthington (as young David) and Marton Csokas (as young Stefan), share an apartment with Rachel as well as romantic inclinations. Jessica Chastain (as young Rachel) is particularly outstanding since the majority of the film holds together centered on Rachel’s heroism.

It is true that the past leads to the present, and each flashback brings new interpretations of events, but regardless of the mixed and negative reviews some of you may read, the mystery behind the Mossad agents and Vogel are clearly laid out. In 1966, three Mossad agents – Stephan (Marton Csokas), David (Sam Worthington), and Rachel (Jessica Chastain) – are brought together in East Berlin for a secret mission: capture Nazi war criminal Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the “Butcher of Birkenau,” and deliver him to Israel for public trial. Nearly 30 years later, these three gather once again to go back into the field after decades of retirement.

The gynecological scenes with the venomous Vogel in which Rachel has her legs in stirrups on the examination table are chilling.  They recall the fear of dentists that “Marathon Man” evoked or the terror of getting into a shower that “Psycho” elicited, but with much more subtlety. In a sneering scene that will be imprinted on the viewer’s brain for a very, very long time, two of the most horrific, unforgivable sentences ever uttered in a movie ring out cruelly from Vogel’s vicious mouth. These excruciating scenes are followed by others. Rachel spoon-feeding the bound Vogel is nausea-inducing in intensity and cunning.   These scenes are not for the faint of heart!

The ending is brilliant, if panned by some critics (not all).  I thought the plot surprised at every turn, keeping me guessing until the very end. What critics could find lame about this movie’s ending  flies in the face of reason to me.  I have not seen a movie about the Holocaust as riveting as this one except for “Sophie’s Choice”,  “Schindler’s List”, and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” but “The Debt” can’t be categorized in the same genre as these movies either.  “The Debt” is also much more than an espionage thriller like “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”.

I can’t believe critics who panned this movie saw the same film I did!  [Warning:  this movie can snap and stretch the nerves of the viewer.]