Lovers of the art that is film sometimes tend (or even wish) to play down the irreducible fact that "having a good story to tell" is part of the deal.
In "Woman in Gold" from British Director Simon Curtis, the story resembles that of several family histories present in the superb genealogy documentary "Who do You Think You Are?" in that we move backwards and forwards - in just a step or two - from the world we know (Los Angeles and Vienna in the 1990s and early 2000s) to the world of a 1938 Austria in which people line the streets to welcome and cheer on Hitler's Anschluss and watch enthusiastically as poor Jews in the streets have their pigtails and beards cut off for humiliation purposes.
And, while much of the Fuhrer's Berlin was pounded to rubble, in parts of Vienna you actually can go back to blocks of flats once inhabited by Jewish people the Nazis exterminated.
Here a splendid Helen Mirren portrays Maria Altmann, who could also (though was in fact phobically reluctant to) go back to her childhood home in Vienna seized without mercy and never returned. At an early stage, Mirren's Altmann reminds us that 50 years is not actually that long a period...
In fact, Maria's life stood out just a little from those of celebrities featured in "Who do You Think You Are?" in that she was among several members of her family to survive the Holocaust - as opposed to the typical situation of being the only one, or at least a descendant of the only one. While Jews rich and poor died, Maria's family had been very well-to-do, and her sugar-manufacturing uncle was astute and influential enough to get out of Vienna quickly. But naturally enough, he had limited capacity to take away property including the titular subject of this movie, the Gustav Klimt painting of Maria's Aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer, which the Austrian state "acquired" smoothly enough post-War (as the country began the process of portraying itself as a victim of Hitler's aggression); this work of art resembling so many others in having been stolen by the Nazis from Jews they were about to cart off and kill.
Ironically, perhaps, Klimt was not a particular favourite for the Nazis, being regarded as at least semi-"degenerate". Had it been fully so the painting might have been summarily destroyed. Equally, had it been fully acceptable, it would doubtless have left Vienna for the Fatherland rapidly enough, as did several other treasures of Maria's family.
And so to the main story, in which Ryan Reynolds plays lawyer Randy Schoenberg - a junior branch of a family also in Maria's circle of Austrian-Jewish escapees, and in fact a grandson of the famous Arnold - a composer unreservedly deemed "degenerate" by the Nazis, who escaped to the US as early as in 1934, only dying in LA in 1951.
In the film - as in life - it is Randy's job to persuade the Austrian authorities - and above all people - that art acquired in the above way cannot in good conscience go on hanging on the walls of the Belvedere Gallery as "Austria's Mona Lisa".
Sounds reasonable enough, right?
Well, in fact, Maria and Randy had a 6-year legal battle on their hands which faced stubborn resistance from Austria. Revindication had only come on to the agenda at all thanks to a 1998 Act pushed for by Nazi-hunter journalist Hubertus Czernin - as superbly played in the film by Daniel Bruhl.
It would be easy to imagine that a story of this kind cannot be messed up in film form, but that would be too optimistic. Many such films are indeed messed up, for example by caricature good guys and bad guys speaking English "viz a strong Jarman exent". Here authentic German is resorted to and everything looks and feels right (which in the context of the story sometimes means "very wrong"). Mirren does her job well, naturally, but her pairing with Reynolds is excellent and the development of Maria and Randy's relationship also a joy. When Bruhl joins them from time to time it just gets even better.
On the whole, the film is also understated, which here is good. But it gives us a hint of the richness of the Jewish culture in old Vienna - most especially when Maria's wedding is portrayed - and this is as fascinating as it is moving and tragic, given the infinite evil soon deployed against it.
In essence, then, a remarkable and important story recreated perfectly.
It's a story all need to know, with an ending of victory and a hint of happiness, albeit muted - as Mirren's Altmann makes clear. But this educational process is also a great cinematic experience - a must-watch indeed.
Woman in Gold
Action / Biography / Drama / History
Woman in Gold
Action / Biography / Drama / History
Maria Altman sought to regain a world famous painting of her aunt plundered by the Nazis during World War II. She did so not just to regain what was rightfully hers, but also to obtain some measure of justice for the death, destruction, and massive art theft perpetrated by the Nazis.
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June 20, 2015 at 01:45 PM