Saturday, July 25, 2015

Movie: The Woman In Gold

The Woman In Gold tells the story of Maria Altmann, an Austrian Jew who fled her homeland shortly after the Anschluss, and her quest to restore to her family, the art stolen by the Nazi regime some sixty years earlier. 

Maria Victoria Bloch-Bauer who was born February 18, 1916 was the daughter of Gustav and Theresa Block-Bauer. She was the niece of Adele Bloch Bauer, a patron of the arts and culture of Vienna in the early 20th century. The Bloch-Bauer family moved within the artistic and cultural circles of what would later be known as Vienna's Golden Age. This meant they also knew the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, whose grandson, a half a century later, would help restore the stolen paintings to their family. Salons were often hosted by Adele Bloch-Bauer and Maria frequently visited the home of the Bloch-Bauer's and remembered it filled with paintings, tapestries and beautiful furniture. Adele's husband, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer was a wealthy businessman who commissioned two paintings of his wife, Adele, when she was twenty-five years old. Klimt painted the first one, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, a magnificent painting done in oil and gold foil, in 190. The painting soon came to represent Vienna's Golden Age.

Adele passed away in 1925 at the age of 44 from meningitis. In 1937, Maria married Frederick "Fritz" Altmann, an opera singer. With the forced annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938, known as the Anschluss, the Bloch-Bauers, like most Jews in Europe, were soon to see their lives destroyed. The Nazis immediately began plundering the art and jewelry collections of wealthy Jewish citizens and the Bloch-Bauers were not spared. The Nazis used the Bloch-Bauer's castle as their base of operations and looted Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer's art and jewelry; among the haul, six Klimt paintings and jewelry including an elaborate choker given to Maria on her wedding day. Ferdinand had already fled first to Prague then to Switzerland. Although Adele had indicated her wish that the paintings be displayed in the Galerie Belvedere in Vienna, this did not happen directly as the paintings were stolen by the Nazi's. Ferdinand passed away in 1945, after unsuccessfully attempting to get his property back from the Austrian government. He willed his estate to Maria Altmann and several other nieces and nephews.

Maria's parents also had their possessions looted. Her father lost his beloved Stradivarius cello, a loss that broke his heart and probably contributed to his death just weeks later. Realizing the threat the Nazi's presented to Jews, Maria's brother-in-law, Bernhard Altmann and his family had already fled to London, England.When the Nazis overran Austria, in order to force him to sign over his very productive textile factory, Bernhard's brother Fredrick was imprisoned in Dachau but was released when Bernhard complied. With the family under house arrest, their possessions looted and hatred against the Jewish population mounting, Maria and Fredrick knew they had to escape. With the help of a friend they were able to fly to Cologne and then cross into the Netherlands, eventually emigrating to America. They left behind her parents, her extended family and a life of wealth and culture in Vienna.

As the years passed Maria and Fritz lived their life in Los Angeles, raising a family but never forgetting what was taken from them, but also held little hope that they would live long enough to see restitution, despite many countries signing agreements to restore stolen property.

In 1998, Austrian investigative journalist, Hubertus Czernin published a piece about the Klimt paintings belonging to Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. His research showed that Adele did not bequeath the paintings to the Galerie Belvedere, something Maria had always been led to believe. Czernin's research resulted in Austria enacting the Art Restitution Law allowing families to file claims for the restitution of art stolen by the Nazi regime in Austria.  Maria learned about the new law and the situation involving her family's painting from a friend in Austria. Determined to recover her family's paintings, Maria engaged E. Randol Schoenberg, grandson of the Austrian composers, Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Ziesl. It is Maria Altmann and Randol Schoenberg's struggle to get the Austrian government to return Altmann's family's property - in this case, five Klimt paintings that is portrayed in the historical drama, The Woman In Gold.

The Woman In Gold was directed by Simon Curtis. tells the remarkable story of a beautiful painting stolen from a family and almost lost to them forever. The events surrounding the restitution of the Klimt painting to the closest living relatives of the Bloch-Bauers are fairly accurately portrayed in with some minor differences. Maria Altmann is portrayed by Oscar, Tony and Emmy Award winner, Helen Mirren. Mirren's performance in The Woman in God is quite endearing, a mixture of German forwardness and Old World charm. Randol Schoenberg is played by Ryan Reynolds. In the movie, Schoenberg is shown to have little knowledge of the Holocaust, but in real life, Schoenberg grew up listening to Maria's stories about life under Nazi rule and her flight to freedom. He first saw the Klimt painting when he visited Vienna as a boy and his mother told him the shimmering lady in gold belonged to Maria Altmann's family. When Schoenberg represented Maria, he was unapologetic in talking about what Austrians did to his grandmother's generation. After winning the right to sue the Austrian government, Schoenberg decided to trust an arbitration panel in Austria. He learned of the Austrian Arbitration Court's order to return the Klimt paintings to Maria Altmann on January 16, 2006 via a text message on his Blackberry. Journalist Hubertus Czernin, who died only months after Maria's victory was well portrayed by Daniel Bruhl who captured Czernin's quiet intensity and determination to force his fellow Austrians to confront their collaboration with the Nazis.

To connect the present efforts of Maria Altmann to recover the stolen Klimts with her tragic past, Curtis uses flashbacks to fill in the back story of Maria's life in Austria when the Nazis came to power. The scenes involving the Nazi plunder of works of art and jewelry are extremely well done, evoke a sense of outrage and leave viewers thirsty for the justice that Maria seeks. They also allow viewers to understand how life changed so suddenly in Vienna, a city the rival of Paris in art and culture. There are scenes of Jews being forced to scrub the sidewalks, forced into trucks and of Orthodox Jews having their beards cut and their heads shaved. The fear and confusion of the Jewish citizens is effectively captured in these scenes and Maria and Fritz's harrowing escape is intense.

The Woman In Gold is highly recommended for those interested in period pieces and historical films.

For those interested in learning more about the Holocaust restitution, they are referred to the Jewish Virtual Library website which has the following pages: Holocaust Restitution: Recovering Stolen Art

Of interest is a talk Randol Schoenberg gave on the Klimt restitution:

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