In 2011 I visited Vienna for the first time, as the result of a last minute decision while on the way to a conference in Hungary. We rocked up at around 8PM and had to leave early the next morning. In exploring the city, we were overwhelmed by the magnitude and the grandeur of all the buildings and art. During our visit there was a special exhibition advertised everywhere: celebrating a painter called Gustav Klimt. Barbarian that I am, I had barely heard of him, but one of his paintings has stuck: the Woman in Gold – the subject of Simon Curtis’ movie baring the same name.
Woman In Gold tells the story of the painting in the Second World War, during which the owners had to flee Austria. The precious painting was captured by the Nazis and found a home at the Belvedere Castle in the Vienna city centre. In the 90s the elderly Maria Altmann, niece of Adele (the woman in gold), talks to a lawyer about getting the painting back from the Austrian government, as she is the rightful owner.
The young Randy Schoenberg takes up the challenge and sues the whole country. What follows is a legal battle stretched over several years. It is very clear that the Austrian government is not ready to give up what is considered to be the Austrian Mona Lisa.
Art and Identity
Woman In Gold tells a true story. Yet another history about the suffering of the Jews in the 19th Century, one could think, but a story worth telling. Similar to The Monuments Men, this movie takes us deep into the subject of identity and how it is related to artistic expressions. The actual painting itself, already stunning, starts to live even more when the backstory and the emotional relations are exposed.
It also ventures into the concept of reconciliation. Altmann is at first very reluctant to revisit Vienna, the city that despised her during last time she was there. However, her positive attitude is embracing the help of the Viennese local Hubertus Czernin. She even comes to the point where she expresses to the Austrian authorities that she is very happy selling Woman In Gold back to them so they can keep it at the Belvedere. More than the money, she wants recognition that the painting was their family’s and it was unjustly taking by the nazis.
Unlike some of the locals, the Austrian government does not see this as an opportunity for reconciliation; it is clear that they find Altmann’s requests absurd. If anyone, she is being the unjust one. And this opens a very important insight into reconciliation: stronger than wanting back what was their’s in the first place, victims of theft want the offenders to acknowledge their wrong.
The story is already strong in itself, but the ever-amazing Helen Mirren makes it even better. She is convincing, she is witty, she is dramatic when necessary. At 70 years of age, she is still at the top of the game. The big surprise for this movie is Ryan Reynolds however. Known for playing mostly goofy, and Razzy-award-worthy, characters, he contrarily portrays an emotional and engaging Schoenberg.
The movie does have its flaws as well. Despite strong, emotional acting, the flashbacks often interrupt the flow of the movie and are not in depth enough to really stick. They also take time from the present-day story, which also suffers from short exposure. Even though the movie is not fast-paced, it could have done with some more depth and character development.
With Woman In Gold, we get to see a fresh perspective on a part in history that deserves to be retold, so we never forget (in this category I place most parts of history to be honest). Especially in light of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s activities in South Africa, this is a story worth exploring in order to understand and relate to how disruptive the dispossession of homes and properties in our country has been.