Ignore the underwhelming ratings on the movie web sites. Woman in Gold is a movie well worth seeing, despite critics’ complaints of heavy-handedness, bad accents, too many flashbacks, and emotional mawkishness. I found none of those things in this story of Maria Altmann, based upon actual events in the life of a Jewish Austrian who managed to flee Europe for America on the eve of the Holocaust.
In brief: famed Austrian artist Gustav Klimt had painted a splendid gold-leafed portrait of Maria’s aunt Adele. When their Vienna apartment is plundered by the Nazis, the painting disappears along with much else, only to end up in an Austrian museum where it has become the “Mona Lisa of Austria,” the artifact par excellence of national pride. Seeking to reclaim rightful ownership of the portrait, Maria (wonderfully portrayed by Helen Mirren) enlists the help of a young lawyer, Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), grandson of the composer Arnold Schoenberg. As the movie progresses, Maria and “Randy” develop a relationship defined far more by Maria’s complexities than by Randy’s youth and inexperience. Together, and by fits and starts, the two pursue restitution of the artwork, which ultimately ends in the portrait’s restoration to Maria.
The story works on many levels: as a period piece; as consciousness-raising for art restitution; as a Holocaust movie; as a law film; as a character study of an Austrian, now American, Jewish woman.
At one important level, Woman in Gold concerns identity. Maria, as she imagines, has left Austria behind for good. But as events reconnect her geographically and emotionally with Austria, she needs to consider who she is vis-à-vis the past. (The several flashbacks to her experiences after the Nazi invasion of Austria help to root the film in history.) Reclaiming the portrait is both an act of justice and also one of personal closure. In a very real way Maria is reunited with her aunt and the rest of her family. The speech by Randy Schoenberg before an Austrian arbitration panel speaks of the nature of national identity, as Randy argues that there are two kinds of Austrians — those who believe in doing the right and just thing by owning up to what the Nazis did in stealing property, and those who don’t.
On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, identity issues will undoubtedly surface for many survivors and children of survivors. Some choose to “forget” their experiences, or at least not bring them to mind, for they cannot truly be forgotten. Others may find themselves speaking of their lives, so that the past will not be repeated. One thing is certain: artworks can be restored, but an arbitration panel cannot reunite those who died with their families.
How then does one reintegrate one’s life in the face of the Holocaust? Some built a new life in America or in other countries. Some became bitter, some became spiritual, some became activists, some retreated. Some painted and others wrote poetry.
Against all odds, some Jews took up the image of Jesus as representative of the persecuted Jew, the martyr, the stand-in for all the hatred, calumny, and persecution that culminated in the events of 75 years ago. Perhaps some took up the image of the resurrected Jesus as the representative of the rebirth of Israel, though I’m unaware of such examples. Images of crucifixion may have resonated for some more than those of resurrection and hope. Sometimes pain stays with us longer than healing.
I recommend viewing Woman in Gold. The triumph, tinged with the images of what once was, is itself a symbol of rebirth in the aftermath of horror. On this remembrance day, let us stand in solidarity, and in hope, with the survivors and with those who perished.