On November 9th and 10th, 1938, barely nine months after the peaceful Anschluss of Austria, Adolph Hitler’s Nazis set about to publicly plunder the homes, businesses and synagogues of Vienna’s Jewish population with impunity befitting their insidious oligarchy. This hellish tumult was openly tolerated, if not, in fact, entirely supported by Austria’s local citizenry; a chapter in its national history incredulously unacknowledged. ‘Kristallnacht’ began a reign of terror the likes of which the world may never hope to know again. But it also set into motion a remarkable journey though fear and a triumphant battle staged by one unlikely survivor, determined to reclaim a unique heritage rightfully belonging to her. Simon Curtis’ Woman in Gold (2015) picks up the story of Maria Altmann in 1999; or rather, Adele Bloch-Bauer, Altmann’s wealthy aunt back in 1925, whose exquisite gold-leaf portrait, painted by world-renown artist, Gustav Klimt, remained on public display inside the Belvedere Gallery for decades thereafter; the so-called ‘Mona Lisa’ of Austria.
Heralding from a sugar cane fortune, the Bloch-Bauers were one of Austria’s most influential and affluent Jewish families until the war. But by 1937, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, Adele’s husband, could see the writing on the walls – literally – Hitler’s promise, to humiliate and exile Germany’s undesirables to workhouses and later, concentration camps, forcing Ferdinand into an impossible situation - to flee; first, to Prague, then later, Zurich where he would die impoverished in 1945. Mercifully, Ferdinand’s beloved wife, Adele escaped the holocaust; alas, of her own tragic fate succumbing to virulent bout of meningitis in 1925. Unwilling to heed his brother’s advice, Maria’s father, Gustav and mother, Therese remained behind, made to endure the cruelties yet to follow. Woman in Gold takes up the aged Maria’s unbelievable saga, seeking restitution from the Austrian government in 1999; a particularly arduous and lengthy process, repeatedly stalled by representatives from the Belvedere, who fought Altmann’s claim every step of the way.
The gallery’s position was the Klimt paintings had been bequeathed by Adele Bloch-Bauer upon her death in a request she had made to her husband. There is some truth to this, insofar as Adele had wished to have her formidable array of artworks put on public display in the country of her origin. Alas, not even she could have foreseen the horrors yet to engulf Europe during the Second World War. Furthermore, in uncovering the history behind the paintings, Maria Altmann would learn the paintings in question did not, in fact, belong to Adele, but rather were the legal property of her husband, Ferdinand – who had not parted with them amicably before his exile. Indeed, the Bloch-Bauer estate became the scene of an infamous Nazi looting; stripped of its worldly assets, many winding up inside the homes of high-ranking Nazi officials thereafter. Some of the Bloch-Bauer’s possessions even came to decorate the walls of the Berchtesgaden; Hitler’s private retreat in the Alps.
Simon Curtis’ movie does an applicable job of conveying all this backstory succinctly, toggling between the past – viewed through a sort of Kodachrome-faded series of flashbacks – and ‘then’ present day, more vibrantly realized by cinematographer, Ross Emery, as Maria Altmann (Dame Helen Mirren, affecting as always) trails the matter with the aid of an, at times, extremely reluctant compatriot; attorney-at-law, Randy Schoenberg (less effectively played by Ryan Reynolds). The opening credits briefly illustrate the process by which Gustav Klimt (Moritz Bleibtreu) created Adele’s portrait. From this auspicious beginning we segue into breathtaking overhead shots of Los Angeles, circa 1999; Maria performing a rather matter-of-fact eulogy over her sister, Luise’s casket; “If life is a race, then she has beaten me to the finish. But if life is a boxing match, then I am the last one standing.” Afterward, Maria wastes no time in making inquiries to an old family friend, Barbara Schoenberg (Frances Fisher) about her son, Randy’s lawyering skills. It seems Randy left a prestigious firm to strike out on his own; a disastrous venture since left him grappling with unpaid student loans and financial debt crippling the security of his new family; wife, Pam (Katie Holmes) and their as yet unborn daughter. Barbara makes Randy promise to stop by Maria’s after his interview for a new job. The meeting goes particularly well, Randy’s prospective boss, Sherman (Charles Dance) agreeing to give Randy another shot at the big time, largely due to his family’s reputation. Randy is, after all, the grandson of the celebrated composer, Arnold Schoenberg; his father, a greatly valued judge, recently retired from the bench.
Arriving late to his appointment with Maria, and emphatically made aware of it, Maria is nevertheless cordial as she quietly explains her discovery of some fascinating letters amongst her late sister’s things. It seems Maria would like to pursue the matter of being ‘reunited’ with a world-famous painting of her beloved Aunt Adele, presently hanging in Austria’s Belvedere Gallery. “I have to do what I can,” Maria explains to Randy, “…to keep these memories alive. Because people forget, you see…especially the young.” Alas, Randy is rather unimpressed, commenting, “That was a half a century ago” to which Maria replies, “You think that’s a long time, do you?” His transparent disregard for Maria’s heritage causes her to quickly lose interest in him. “This was a test,” she explains, “…and we both failed.” Nevertheless, Randy, who has absolutely no experience in art restitution, sheepishly agrees to look over the few remaining letters in Maria’s possession. Quickly, he establishes that the Belvedere’s claim on the paintings as their rightful property is predicated on the highly suspect Last Will and Testament of Adele Bloch-Bauer; a Will no one, not even Maria’s sister was permitted to review for its authenticity.
Randy implores Sherman to allow him a week’s fact-finding sojourn in Austria to investigate the matter further. But his interests remain purely mercenary. A victory for Maria would be a feather in his cap, a means to prove to Sherman his worth as an attorney and secure the firm a nice fat retainer and/or settlement, as the portrait is valued in the millions. However, Maria is understandably hostile toward the notion of returning to her homeland. Thus, we regress into the first of many flashbacks to establish the various reasons why. Maria (now played by a winsome, Tatiana Maslany) is briefly glimpsed on her wedding day; her husband, opera star, Fritz (Max Irons) serenading her with an aria. Amidst this gaiety, Ferdinand quietly urges Gustav to make plans to leave Austria. But for Gustav, it is inconceivable the family should live elsewhere. Austria is their home. In the present, Randy gets Maria on a plane, and further convinces her partake in a public address to the Austrian arts’ counsel on the issue of restitution. The hearings are mere formality for the Austrian government, attended by officials from the Belvedere merely as a courtesy, neither particularly interested in seeing a half-century old injustice overturned. Maria points out that even the word ‘restitution’ implies a return to one’s previous state. And yet, as Maria illustrates, nothing can ever undo all that has been lost to her for so many long years.
We retreat to a painful memory; Fritz and Maria witnessing the humiliation of various Jewish friends and neighbors being forced to paint the word ‘Jew’ on the facades of their businesses and scrub the pavement on their hands and knees; their homes looted and ransacked by the Nazis, who break in at will and take whatever they desire. Maria, Fritz, Theresa and Gustav are placed under house arrest; the Nazis taking a physical inventory of their familial possessions. Maria suggests to one of their captors, Heinrich (Tom Schilling) she must go to the local apothecary and fill a prescription for her ailing father. In reality, Gustav and Theresa have already said their tearful goodbyes to their only daughter; Gustav ordering Maria and Fritz to make a harrowing escape through the backroom catacombs and rooftops. Narrowly, the pair averts disaster and repeated capture; the couple stealing away with false passports aboard a waiting plane mere hours before the borders are permanently closed.
Back in the present, Randy and Maria are befriended by Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl) a young Austrian journalist, openly embarrassed by Austria’s stalemate on the issue of restitution, but equally ashamed of his own father’s spurious past as a Nazi sympathizer. Hubertus has a mole contact in the Belvedere who provides Randy and Maria with backstage access to secret documents regarding the museum’s acquisition of the Klimt paintings. One of Woman in Gold’s most endearing qualities is its screenplay by Alexi Kaye Campbell, precisely infused with bits of light comedy into this otherwise sincere and, at moments, deadly serious story, but without ever ‘making light’ of the situation itself. “This is just like a James Bond film,” Maria declares as she and Randy prepare to embark upon their fact-finding mission. But even she cannot fathom they will unearth an even more devastating truth; that the paintings were stolen and her private possessions – jewelry, furs, etc. – given away to the wives and sweethearts of high-ranking Nazi officials; some even adorning Hitler’s private retreat in the Alps.
Making valiant and repeated attempts to engage the Belvedere’s committee with their unearthed facts, Maria and Randy are ignored; then, marginally tolerated by the gallery’s smug arbitrator, Dreimann (Justus von Dohnányi). Austrian law prevents Maria from filing charges against the Belvedere; the penal code demanding she first put up one third of the portrait’s value in order to pursue the case further. As this sum would amount to several million dollars, an impossible fee, Maria has no choice but to drop the investigation and return to the United States. However, all is not lost. For only a few months later, while casually perusing the racks of his local Barnes & Noble, Randy happens to discover an art book featuring Adele’s portrait on its front cover. According a loophole in the law, Randy deduces the Austrian government has broken a precedent for which the art restitution statute was first retroactively applied, by ‘selling’ a likeness of the portrait as seemingly their own public property. Maria can now take the gallery to court in the United States using the argument the likeness was never theirs to sell in the first place.
Despite having hired high-priced attorney, Stan Gould (Rolf Saxon) to get the case against the gallery dismissed, a preliminary hearing presided over by Judge Florence Cooper (Elizabeth McGovern) rules in Maria’s favor. A short while later, Maria is taken to lunch by Ronald Lauder (Ben Miles), the son of famed cosmetician, Estée Lauder. But their amicable exchange of ideas and Maria’s willingness to entertain the idea Ronald’s New York gallery should eventually play host to Adele’s portrait, once her rights to it have been established, sours when Ronald suggests Maria drop Randy in favor of his own high-priced mouthpiece who specializes in art restitution. Siding with Randy instead, the matter of the Republic of Austria vs Maria Altmann goes all the way to the United States Supreme Court; Dreimann determined to discredit Randy and Maria, whom he still considers no more a threat than irksome underlings. However, after some preliminary questioning, Chief Justice Rehnquist (Jonathan Pryce) upholds the decision to allow the case to move forward, although without the complicity of the U.S. government to back it, presumably under the guise as a matter threatening national diplomacy.
Both Dreimann and Randy are aware further litigation could take years, possibly even decades to sort through, allowing for the natural order of things to claim Maria’s life before she ever sees her beloved aunt’s portrait disentangled from all the red tape, Dreimann once again asserts the Belvedere’s position: they will never willingly surrender Woman in Gold without a fight. Maria suggests a compromise. The paintings may continue to hang in the gallery provided they publicly admit to having stolen them in the first place and agree to a considerable restitution. Dreimann glibly refuses to even consider this offer. Maria storms out of their talks, deeply wounded, and later, orders Randy not to pursue the case any further. But he refuses to bow under pressure, reminding Maria he has sacrificed everything to chase after her dream; having quit his job under duress of being fired, and this with a wife and young baby to support. Frustrated, though refusing to budge, Maria grants Randy the opportunity to engage a panel of three arbiters in Vienna on her behalf. But she steadfastly declines to accompany him back to Austria. In Vienna, Randy and Hubertus are reunited; Randy nervously preparing to address the committee of arbitrators, when suddenly he sees Maria materializing from the crowd of onlookers. “The first time I came for myself,” she whispers to Hubertus, who offers her his chair, “This time I’ve come for him.”
As Randy begins his oral dissertation, he reiterates some of the fundamental truths about the case; that it ought to have never gone as far as it has, being a domestic issue best resolved within Austria’s borders. He also identifies ‘two Austrias’; one stalwartly opposed even to the concept any restitution should be made to the victims of Nazism, the other seeking to rectify the injustices committed nearly a half a century earlier. Finally, Randy points to an incontestable fact: the Klimt paintings reached the Belvedere Gallery under a cloud of suspicion, their acquisition both illegal and dishonest. “This is a moment in which the past is asking something of the present,” Randy concludes, “Many years ago, just outside these walls, people dehumanized other people, persecuted them, sent many of them to their deaths – decimating entire families. And they stole from them – properties, livelihoods, objects most precious to them. So now I am asking you, as Austrians, as human beings, to recognize that wrong…not only for Maria Altmann but for Austria.”
After adjourning to debate, the committee is moved to agree with Randy’s argument. They rule the Klimt paintings must be returned to Maria Altmann. Understandably chagrined, Dreimann rather mockingly implores Maria to reconsider what their removal from the Belvedere, for so long considered a part of their national pride, will mean to the people of Austria. In point of fact, he is merely treading water and concerned only with saving his own face. Maria, however, has no such compunction, reiterating for Dreimann how the tables have turned in her favor. She reminds him of his unwillingness to even entertain her more than generous offer prior to the arbitration committee’s decision. “So now my aunt will make her home in America as I have!” she concludes. Alas, even Maria can see the shallowness in her ‘victory’. For nothing can ever bring back the past she once knew, restore her ‘happily ever after’ memories of a pre-war Austria or reunite her with the family lost in the holocaust. A short while later, Maria ventures to explore the family home she knew as a girl, long since converted into a suite of business offices. As she strolls through these sterile rooms, the foreignness of their present state miraculously gives way to ancient reminders of the even cadence and lavishness from that bygone era of her youth. She is reunited with the ghosts of her mother, father, sister and beloved Aunt Adele; the movie concluding on a semi-inspirational note: at least a part of the past has been reconciled with Maria’s present and future.
Woman in Gold is an undeniably earnest and occasionally magnificent bid to hew a minor cinematic masterpiece from a major cultural artifact; Klimt’s famed painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Thematically, at least, we’ve seen it all before; the nearest predecessor, George Clooney’s meandering and unimpressive The Monuments Men (2014). Where Clooney made his mistake was in remaining standoffish about the personal investments by his troop of wartime art experts in search of stolen treasures from WWII. Woman in Gold avoids this pitfall, primarily because it empowers the audience, almost immediately, in its fertile association with art, not as mere decorous possessions to adorn empty walls, but as an extension of personal history; sensual, alive and longing to rectify a grave injustice. Every painting has its own vibrant story to tell, but Woman in Gold’s is particularly potent. Screenwriter, Alexi Kaye Campbell’s intelligent and witty repartee between the two main characters who make up – and take up – the bulk of our narrative, maintains a tenuous balance between the light, almost airy comedic moments, perfectly situated between the severities expressed in flashbacks, augmenting rather than deflecting from the authenticity in these parallel stories.
Woman in Gold could have so easily devolved into heavy-handed tripe and treacle about one woman’s bittersweet and altruistic triumph over the acquisitive and conspiring forces set against her. Largely, we are spared such overbearing melodramatics by Dame Helen Mirren’s incandescent incarnation of this sensibly cultivated octogenarian. Mirren reigns supremely as Maria Altmann. Gradually, she builds a performance, from smartly plotting elder stateswoman to stubbornly resolved gris eminence of an era too far removed from Randy Schoenberg’s own frame of reference; drawing him into her past regressions with deceptive ease and coaxing his own reconsiderations of this painful family history with a visit to the holocaust memorial. I have read several reviews, precipitously criticizing Woman in Gold for its ‘mother lode of platitudinous sentiment’. By my estimation, such reviewers are both cynical and forgetful; qualities Maria ascribes rather inauspiciously to the young. Her point is well taken. For what restitution can be made to a woman forced to sacrifice her homeland and her family; to whom the ill winds of Nazism blew a pitiless dust, viewed as mere ancient history by Randy at first, and meant to shutter, though never shut out these tortuous reminiscences?
For those acquainted only with these atrocities via research, perusing faded photographs or 16mm film footage on the History Channel, the war ostensibly ended in 1945. But Woman in Gold reminds us that for some, the strain of the past persisted as a life-long, terrible and terrific affliction, unconquerable by any passage of time. The protracted fight between Maria Altmann and the Belvedere Gallery continues to resonate as something less than righting an age-old injustice; a flaw perhaps in our own modern sensibility – unable entirely to embrace, much less perceive with truthful satisfaction, genuine heroism on display. The point of this exercise is hardly ‘victory achieved’. As Mirren’s Altmann reiterates, sobbing against Randy’s shoulder, “My mistake was in believing this would somehow make it all better – it doesn’t.”
Less attractive to the overall arc of director, Simon Curtis’ story are some of the casting decisions made, starting with Ryan Reynolds; an actor in whom I have yet been able to warm. Like Leonardo Di Caprio before him, Reynolds is plagued by a sort of perpetually stunted, prepubescent ‘boyish’ charm. He cannot escape this effete quality. It lacks the intrinsic value of overt masculinity and his scenes as husband and father, opposite a rather perpetually grim Katie Holmes, like an American character thrust upon the plot of a Victorian novel, lack believability, and this, despite Reynolds harboring obvious parallels in deportment and mannerisms that occasionally make him a dead ringer for the real J. Randol Schoenberg. Still, there is a quaint sort of Lou Costello quality to his performance, remaining – if not in perfect register – then, at least, in the same ballpark as Mirren’s Bud Abbott.
Mirren is a skilled enough actress to be able to play down to Reynold’s level and style of acting and still not sacrifice the integrity of her own performance. But Woman in Gold needed a more butch co-star to carry the male lead. At moments, Reynolds incarnation of Schoenberg seems more emotionally fragile than Maria, albeit without the necessary warm shoulder to weep salty tears upon. He comes through for Maria during her penultimate ‘breakdown’ after winning her case, but again – it never attains the level of perfection that Mirren’s ability to convey heartfelt and extremely wounded sadness has in spades. Even through a veil of tears, Mirren is in command of their scenes together; particularly this one and, more embarrassingly, the moment when Maria cruelly admonishes, then dismisses Schoenberg for chancing the outcome of their case on arbitration in Vienna. Reynolds gives us the frustrations of a young man on the brink, but with an adolescent’s incapability to completely grasp the reasons why he ought to be genuinely angry. Bottom line: he’s weak, and, at intervals, ill-suited to sustain the magical spark, even in expertly designed banter that ought to have buoyed the movie completely. It’s not enough of a personal failure to implode the picture, but conversely, it does it no favors either. Bottom line: Woman in Gold is a fascinating glimpse into one woman’s unfaltering quest to make restitution with the ghosts from her past. That she only partially achieves this purpose is, in fact, the point of the story.
Produced in conjunction with BBC Films, Origin Pictures, and, 2nd District Filmproduktion, distributed in the U.S. by the Weinstein Company, Woman in Gold was shot digitally using Arri Alexa equipment, yielding plenty of depth and detail with very strong black levels. The deliberately faded Kodachrome-ish flashbacks are somewhat disappointing in that they fail to capture the lushness of period and do not take advantage of Jim Clay’s production design. The predominant color in these flashbacks is a sort of piggy pinkish red tint; again, deliberately achieved in Ross Emery’s cinematography. For the sequences taking place in ‘the present’, Emery adopts a more natural palette, albeit with a slight teal slant. But herein, flesh tones are accurately realized as realistic, if not terribly oversaturated. Overall, while there’s nothing wrong with these visuals. On the flipside, there is nothing terribly impressive about them either.
As this is a dialogue-driven feature, the quality of the DTS-HD 5.1 track is appropriately absorbing with momentary bouts in which to exercise the surround channels – as in the daring escape young Maria and Fritz make through the streets of Vienna to escape the Nazis. Extras include a feature commentary from Simon Curtis and producer, David M. Thompson; exceptionally informative with lots of back story. The rest of the extras are toss-away: The Making of Woman in Gold barely clocking in at 23 ½ min. – dull and predictable PR stuff. It’s also disappointing not to have the 2007 'Stealing Klimt' documentary included herein; just a trailer to whet the appetite, presumably for a feature yet to follow a pending home video release in North America. At a little over 10 minutes, the Neue Galerie New York Press Conference picks up the story of the painting after the movie; Maria Altmann having sold it to Ronald Lauder for a record $135 million in 2006. Finally, there is a barrage of front loaded trailers to promote other already released or pending releases from The Weinstein Company, including the Blu-ray of Mr. Holmes. Personally, I am looking forward to this one. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)