By Kailee Densman Smith
2016 Mary Devine Award Recipient
Adele by Klimt
Woman In Gold is the story of Maria Altmann and the trials she went through in recovering a famous Gustav Klimt painting, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. Confiscated a half century earlier by the Nazis and now in the possession of the Austrian government, Woman in Gold opens at the funeral for Maria Altmann's sister. While going through her sister's personal affects, Maria Altmann, played by Helen Mirren, discovers letters regarding the painting. Torn by grief, the emotions and memories spur her to hire a struggling lawyer, Randy Schoenberg, to help her reclaim what is rightfully hers. Schoenberg, acted by Ryan Reynolds, convinces Maria "to seek restitution and justice." Breaking a personal vow never to return to Austria, in Vienna, Altmann is overwhelmed by the memories of her childhood in the city and the frightening days when the Nazis invaded and took control. Through a series of flashbacks, the backstory traces Maria as a child growing up in privilege, and the viewer meets her famous aunt who was the subject of the Gustav Klimt painting stolen by the Nazis when Austria incorporated into Nazi Germany.
While in Austria, Maria and her lawyer meet Hubertus Czernin, a struggling journalist. He maintains that the painting in question never belonged to Maria's aunt. Her last will bequeathed the art to the Belvedere Palace in Vienna. Maria's uncle, however, paid the commission on the painting, which made him the owner. His last will and testament legally named his heirs as the next owners. Initially, Maria's trip to Austria resulted in nothing but sad memories. Returning to Los Angeles, Schoenberg happens upon a possible loophole that might allow the case to be heard in the United States. Schoenberg files against the Austrian government in the US court system, contesting Austria's claim to the painting. Eventually, the case goes all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, where the judges in Republic of Austria v. Altmann ruled in favor of Mrs. Altmann.
The Austrian government tries to get Maria to leave her painting in their possession, but she refused, forcing another trip to Austria in order for the case to be heard by an arbitration panel. Schoenberg gives a heart wrenching argument. He reminds the panel of the atrocities of the Nazis during the war and that survivors of these families deserve justice. The panel ruled in favor of Altmann and one of the most famous paintings in modern history was returned to her. In a last ditch attempt at keeping the paintings in Vienna, the Austrian government pleads again with her but she again refuses, stating that the paintings "will now travel to America like I once had to as well." Altmann later accepted an offer from Ronald Lauder to place the Klimt painting in the Neue Galerie in New York as a permanent exhibit.
The film was directed by Simon Curtis, whose other notable work My Week with Marilyn received acclaim. The writing was done by Alexi Kaye Campbell; with assistance from biolographical material on Randol Schoenberg and Maria Altmann. Overall the movie was well received in the box office, grossing $44,489,464 worldwide. Yet, despite strong acting by a capable cast, the film did not properly give an incredible story the in-depth consideration it needed. Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds gave strong performances and helped carry the film but that alone is not enough to make it an outstanding film. Instead, Woman in Gold is an average film that does a decent job at condensing the long drawn out processes of the legal world and the many years it takes to go through a case of this magnitude. Although not extremely exciting or dynamic, the film does give an accurate view on the subject. The film proves interesting and a good launching point for exploring Maria Altmann's story as well as that of thousands of others who had their property stolen and their lives lost or altered forever by the Nazis. Helen Mirren received the Recognition Award for Woman in Gold from President Ronald S. Lauder and the World Jewish Congress. The WJC Recognition Award "honors outstanding individuals working on behalf of the Jewish people."
As with many refugees, Altmann and her husband fled to America after the Nazis entered the Altmann home and stole art, money, and jewelry. Among the stolen artwork was Gustav Klimt's painting often known as the "Mona Lisa of Austria." The Woman in Gold depicted Maria Altmann's famous aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. Thus, the film is enjoyable as a glimpse into the world of art in a dangerous time.
Gustav Klimt, a celebrated painter was born in 1862 as the second of seven children to Ernst and Anna Klimt, in Baumgarten, near Vienna. He grew up impoverished but in 1876 was granted a scholarship to the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts. He studied there for seven years training in architectural painting. Gustav, two of his brothers, and their friend, Franz Matsch, collaborated to form what they called the "Company of Artists." As a member of the Company, Klimt painted interior murals and ceilings in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The Golden Order of Merit was awarded to Klimt in 1888 by Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria for the works he did in the Burgtheater in Vienna. The death of Klimt's father and brothers affected his art greatly through the following decades.
After a falling out with Matsch, Klimt works on the cathedral ceiling at the new university of Vienna slowed and "many of the pieces that were designed for the university, including Medicine and Jurisprudence," were controversial and "met with disdain due to the extreme symbolic nature in the art forms." These reactions led Klimt to form the Secession Movement in 1897. The movement gained popularity, drawing 57,000 visitors to its first gallery in 1898. By 1905, Gustav was a strong force inside the movement and became the most popular and most celebrated artist in Vienna. In 1905, he started a style and approach to art, quickly noted as lavish and erotic. His new form was rejected by many in the art world. He painted women in the nude, positioned in evocative and provocative ways. Klimt wanted to "put sexuality in the public sphere." Works like Danae, and The Kiss came out of this period. In 1911, Klimt traveled to Italy where his works were more widely accepted. Gustav Klimt died of a stroke in 1918, and as usual, sales of his works increased greatly. Some of his masterpieces include, Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer I, The Three Ages of Woman, and Judith and the Head of Holofernes to name a few.
Ms. Mirren's portrayal of this sometimes fearsome woman who did not suffer fools is ultimately sympathetic; Her chilly reserve and aristocratic manners as Maria camouflages a reservoir of feeling. Her dry-eyed performance is the more impressive because the role could so easily have been milked for weepy sentimentality. For apart from Ms. Mirren's performance, Woman in Gold rather smugly and shamelessly pushes familiar buttons. As directed by Simon Curtis from a screenplay by Alexi Kaye Campbell, Woman in Gold turns a complicated story with many debatable questions about artistic provenance and ownership into a standard historical drama about good guys versus bad guys. The bad guys are modern day Austrians, portrayed as cold, arrogant enemies of truth and justice. Their legal battle to keep the work in Austria is subtly used as evidence of a residual nostalgia for the Nazi occupation, tinged with anti-Semitism, although none is voiced outright. The good guys are Holocaust refugees and their American colleagues, who take Maria's case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Today, the "gold encrusted painting" of Adele Bloch-Bauer gazes out majestically at her admirers as proud and beautiful as when Klimpt painted her. Certainly, Maria Altmann repaid handsomely the American public for its gift of sanctuary in a time of lawless cruelty.
Footnotes and bibliography are available upon request to Clio's Eye.