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Movie Review: ‘Woman in Gold’ – A Very Personal Experience

Well-researched and mostly true to the actual facts, Woman in Gold depicts a personal story of Nazi/government art theft and the many attempts at reclamation by one Austrian holocaust survivor, Maria Altman, living in the USA in the late 1990s. The Austrian government had finally decided to offer "restitution" to living heirs of Jewish families who could "prove" losses and thefts of possessions during the Nazi occupation of Austria. WOMAN IN GOLD - from Official Trailer - The Weinstein Company At the film's start, Altman's older sister has died and she discovers amongst her things some paperwork indicating ownership of valuable family paintings, including the…

Review Overview

Summary : Moving, educational, uplifting and significant: see this film. Five Stars.

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Well-researched and mostly true to the actual facts, Woman in Gold depicts a personal story of Nazi/government art theft and the many attempts at reclamation by one Austrian holocaust survivor, Maria Altman, living in the USA in the late 1990s. The Austrian government had finally decided to offer “restitution” to living heirs of Jewish families who could “prove” losses and thefts of possessions during the Nazi occupation of Austria.

Movie title WiG

WOMAN IN GOLD – from Official Trailer – The Weinstein Company

At the film’s start, Altman’s older sister has died and she discovers amongst her things some paperwork indicating ownership of valuable family paintings, including the film’s eponymous portrait of their aunt. Altman hires a young Jewish attorney, descended from some of her Viennese friends who had also escaped to the U.S. (Los Angeles), E. Randol Schoenberg, whose grandfather had been a beloved Austrian composer. Schoenberg reluctantly agrees to take her case even though he knows nothing about art reclamation. Clumsily and for questionable reasons, at first, then more adroitly and selflessly, he helps Altman navigate the legal and emotional journey of reclaiming what’s rightfully hers: her Austrian heritage and family’s treasures.

The modern story is well-paced, emotionally wrenching and fraught with conflicts, disturbingly but necessarily interspersed with scenes that are flashbacks from her childhood and young adult life as a privileged member of a prominent Viennese family prior to and during the rise of Nazism in Austria. No spoilers, here, but the film does take the audience through the entire heart-rending process via scenes and a text epilogue. Bring tissues.

It would have been easy for this film to become maudlin, overly focusing on the past or getting lost in Altman’s and Schoenberg’s grief and anger, but the script, based on previous works written by the attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg and the life story of Maria Altman, was so well-devised by Alexi Kaye Campbell that we are educated, moved and entertained, not depressed. The directing, by Simon Curtis, so cleverly accomplished its objectives that the pacing and editing saved this story from languishing in sorrow.

By the film’s end, it is clear that these scenes, painful as they were to watch, were integral to the story because they conveyed in cello playing (acted by Alan Corduner), her aunt’s precious and beautiful jewelry stolen by the Nazis right out of the family’s apartment as they sit by, helplessly watching. We need to see Altman’s parents’ sorrowful, knowingly permanent good-byes to Maria and her husband, by watching these in “real time” rather than hearing Maria tell about them. Great choices, artfully made.

Helen Mirren, as the lead actor, plays the strong-willed Holocaust survivor, Maria Altman. Mirren deserves yet another Oscar. Multilayered, showing her grief, joy, hope, frustration, anger, and solace as she moves through her scenes in both the U.S. and Vienna, her performance was outstanding.

I was especially pleased to see another of my favorite stars, Tatiana Maslany, in the role of young adult Maria Altman, since I so enjoy her playing diverse roles as many clones in Orphan Black on BBC TV.

Helen and Ryan with painting

Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds in Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds gave a surprisingly understated (he is often cast in “over the top” comedic roles, which I do not like much), nuanced performance as young attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg. Reynolds exhibited the transformation of Schoenberg’s motivation and the stages of his personal journey movingly well. His reactions to his encounters during his first trip to Vienna, seeing Austria for the first time, recognizing that his ancestors had inhabited these spaces, are worth the price of the ticket.

Katie Holmes, Frances Fischer, and the many who played villainous Austrians also turned in fine performances in their brief appearances, with Jonathan Pryce as U.S. Supreme Court Judge Rehnquist especially delightful. I was glad to see Downton Abbey‘s Elizabeth McGovern in a small but key role as a U.S. judge, played with aplomb and grace.

painting WomaninGold

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Neue Galerie New York

Hans Zimmer, who must be the busiest composer ever, with at least five films per year for the last 40 (!) years, and many awards already earned for his music, wrote yet another amazing score. His music enhances each scene, evoking the range emotions portrayed on screen even more strongly.

Likewise, the camera work and editing were superb, especially the splendid employment of almost holographic vignettes overlapping Maria Altman’s current life with scenes from her Viennese childhood and young adult years. 

The entire film is moving, educational, uplifting and significant. See this film!

A Personal Connection to the Movie

I screened the film with my 83-year-old mother in St. Louis, where she had lived since the age of 11. My mother noted that, although she hadn’t expected so many scenes from the Nazis’ rise in Vienna, and hadn’t wanted to see them at all, she recognized by the film’s end that these scenes, painful as they were to watch, were integral to the story because they conveyed information that was important for viewers to know. 

How else would a younger or ignorant audience member begin to understand the depths of Maria Altman’s rage at and disgust with non-Jewish Austrians, other than by seeing reenactments of Christians’ complicity, their delight, in the Nazis’ degradation and tormenting of the Jews? What better way to demonstrate the enormity of the Altman family’s losses than to show what their lives had been like before the Nazis took Vienna?

We do need to know about Maria’s fiance’s operatic singing talent (well done, by Max Irons), her father’s cello playing (acted by Alan Corduner), her aunt’s precious and beautiful jewelry stolen by the Nazis right out of the family’s apartment as they sit by, helplessly watching. We need to see Altman’s parents’ sorrowful, knowingly permanent good-byes to Maria and her husband, by watching these in “real time” rather than hearing Maria tell about them. Great choices, artfully made.

My mother reminded me that her best friend, also 83, had escaped Austria in 1937 with her parents and sister. They had had to leave everything they owned and the rest of their family behind. Everyone else in their family was later murdered by the Nazis.

This traumatized family had made their way to St. Louis, Missouri, which made them some of the few lucky Jews to have been allowed into the USA at that time. My mom and her friend later had married at similar times and had had children in almost the same years, choosing to live in the same little neighborhood with many Jewish families. 

My mother told me that she was nervous about telling her friend about this movie (they talk daily on the phone) and its story since her friend NEVER discusses the Holocaust or her family’s escape with her.

I said I understood and expected her to keep our movie-going to herself. Later, I overheard her broaching the subject on the phone. They talked briefly, ending with my mom’s saying: “I understand. Of course you don’t need to see this movie. You already know more than enough.”

My former partner’s mother was a Holocaust survivor who had lived with us in the years before she died. I told my mother that this women had also escaped Austria in 1937, as a young adult (about the same age as Maria Altman), by marrying a man she did not love from Romania, because Jews with Romanian passports had an easier time moving throughout Europe and getting into asylum countries. 

This woman had been continually so terrified throughout her adult life of being “found as a Jew” that she renounced Judaism, first taking up Mormonism, then atheism. 

Of her extended family, almost all had been sent to concentration camps and later murdered by the Nazis, but a younger cousin had been sent to England on one of the “KinderTransport” trains (which has an excellent documentary film worth watching). My friend’s mother later found out that her young cousin had been mistreated, as so many of these “rescued” Jewish children had, forced to work as a household servant from the ages of eleven to sixteen.

When the war ended, this young woman discovered that only one of her family members, her father, had survived the concentration camp horrors (partly due to the cigarettes, which he could trade, and canned food, some of which he did get to eat, that my partner’s mother had sent him somewhat regularly). She found that that he was en route to Australia with many other European Holocaust survivors and she immediately set sail herself to meet up with him.

However, he had been very ill already, weakened from years in the camps. She found out after she arrived that he had died while the boat was in harbor, awaiting permission to unload its passengers from the Australian government, a process which had taken several weeks. Although she had been there while the ship was docked, she had never gotten to see him or any other members of her immediate family alive again.

I then explained to my mother as we arrived home from this moving, horrifying yet somewhat uplifting film, that my former partner’s father had owned a button factory in Vienna which had been seized along with all of their other possessions by the Nazis. In the late 1990s, the Austrian government, as seen in this film, finally decided to institute “reparations” and “restitution” proceedings for survivors (more than fifty years later…). At age 88 and in frail health, my former partner’s mother filed her claims, but she had died before they could be adjudicated.

Her death and thousands like it were probably exactly what the Austrian government had been counting on, as shown in the film regarding the art restitution procedures. No survivors: no reason to pay reparations. Apparently they felt no obligation to compensate the heirs of the survivors.

There are hundreds of thousands of stories like this and worse. Woman in Gold tells a few of them quite well.

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The Outcomes

Fabulously, Maria Altman outlived the Austrian government’s malicious machinations, as we read in the text epilogue. The Austrian government officials never took responsibility for the thievery, collusion or continued attempts to prevent Altman (and many others) from being reunited with their family’s art, but when Schoenberg and Altman took her case to arbitration in Vienna (after winning the USA Supreme Court’s judgment that allowed them to sue the Austrian government in the USA), the arbiters found in Maria Altman’s favor.

After being reunited with her family’s precious paintings, Altman sold the most famous of these paintings, the “Woman in Gold,” for upwards of $130 million, to a New York art gallery, with the stipulation that it always remain in public view. Much of the rest of her financial compensation she donated to charities, including her husband’s beloved Los Angeles Opera. 

maria_altmann with painting

Maria Altman with painting of “Woman in Gold,” from www.haaretz.com

Randol Schoenberg continues to work in the field of art restitution for Holocaust survivors. He is still attempting to reunite over 100,000 pieces of art with their rightful owners or heirs. He donated a large portion of his fees from this and similar cases to help create a new building for the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum. 

After all the atrocities that Jews had suffered at the hands of the Nazis and Nazi collaborators in Austria, reclaiming art or getting a pittance from the government for businesses nationalized/stolen during the Nazis’ reign in Austria may seem trivial. How can paintings assuage grief? How can anything tangible even begin to “make up for” what they lost and suffered?

But, ask yourself: since you can’t bring back the dead, return to your exact home, or find/reclaim any other items, wouldn’t you want to recover what you could? Possessions, as we saw depicted so well in the film, evoke strong memories of the people and places in which we knew them best, so having a few treasured pieces in their lives again perhaps helps mitigate the grief, if only just a bit.

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Reviewed by Sally Ember, Ed.D. http://www.sallyember.com

About Sally Ember

Sally Ember, Ed.D., has been passionate about writing since she was nine years old, winning prizes for her poetry, stories, songs and plays from a young age. She also began meditation in her teens. Now, Sally delights fans of psi elements with romance by blurring the lines between fact and fiction in "The Spanners Series" ebooks, a multiverse of multiple timelines, often including exciting elements of utopian science-fiction and Buddhism, for New Adult/adult/YA audiences; two out (first is permafree) with eight to come, Born Jewish on the cusp of Leo and Virgo, Sally's life has been infused with change. Currently, she meditates, writes, swims, reads and hosts her Google+ Hangout On Air (HOA)/Youtube show, *CHANGES* conversations between authors, LIVE, almost every Wednesday, 10 - 11 AM Eastern time, USA.