Based on a true story, a crusty octogenarian woman (portrayed by an accented grand dame of film and stage) and a younger exasperated man team up to wring justice from 50-year-old wrongs. Sounds like Philomena (2013)? Woman in Gold follows a similar structure in traveling from Los Angeles to Vienna, from 1998 back to 1923 and the 1940’s, to make the legacy of the Nazis’ plunder of art a very personal cause.
Helen Mirren so formally embodies Maria Bloch-Bauer Altmann that you can practically hear her Olde World German even when she’s speaking English. The funeral of her sister in 1998 makes for a sad gathering of the close-knit Viennese refugee community that settled in Los Angeles after fleeing the Nazis. Among her friends are the Schoenberg family, descendants of Arnold, the composer (as seen in Karen Thomas’s 2009 documentary Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood).
Going through her sister’s boxes, she finds years of correspondence with the Austrian government seeking the return of the family’s Gustav Klimt paintings that were seized during the war. Their favorite aunt’s portrait then became the centerpiece of the national museum as if it were “the Austrian Mona Lisa,” but since the Nazis took the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I off the Bloch-Bauers’ apartment walls, the work became known only as the anonymous Woman in Gold, with no museum acknowledgement of the subject’s Jewish identity—let alone the work’s true provenance.
When Frau Altmann entrusts her letters to Arnold’s grandson Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to see if she has a case for restitution, the past comes flooding back in flashbacks, so much so she’s not sure if she can “face the ghosts.” Hers was a childhood where Klimt paintings were not museum masterpieces, but part of her everyday environment, visual proof that after World War I the assimilated Jewish elite of Vienna became cultural leaders.
Her earliest memories are of living in a grand apartment with her beautiful and elegant Aunt Adele (Antje Traue) amidst gatherings of intellectual and artistic friends. Adele’s older husband, Ferdinand (Henry Goodman), was pleased to commission two portraits of her by Klimt. After her early death at age 43 in 1925, the paintings, and the many working drawings, became a shrine for her grieving family, especially the larger, gold-flaked one that Maria fondly refers to throughout as “my aunt.”
Back in Los Angeles, Randy is struggling, financially with a baby on the away, and as a lawyer, after failing on his own. He now tries to fit in at a big firm under limits set by a stern senior partner—Charles Dance is almost as threatening as in Game of Thrones. (As Randy’s wife, Katie Holmes goes from worried to supportive.) Reynolds at first seems a bland casting choice, but he gains conviction through his growing obsession with the case, matching Randy’s gradual gain of confidence and his growing commitment to acknowledge his heritage and the impact of the Holocaust on his family.
Young Schoenberg’s and the elderly Mrs. Altmann’s quest is made possible with the help of crusading journalist Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl), patriotically dedicated to exposing Austria’s denials of Nazi collaboration, from as high up as Chancellor Kurt Waldheim as well as expiating his own family. He guides the two through the government’s legislative and policy changes, and has crucial contacts in various archives. (He refers to one as a mole, using Cold War spy terminology.)
The archives reveal the flimsiness of the legal document the museum has been using to justify its ownership. After the museum officials and cultural ministry deal with them dismissively and condescendingly in negotiations for a compromise, Schoenberg figures out how to sue Austria in U.S. courts. Despite Schoenberg’s litigation inexperience, the case moves from California (where Curtis’s wife, Elizabeth McGovern, plays the sympathetic judge) to the U.S. Supreme Court (2004’s Republic of Austria v. Altmann), where he manages to get himself together to answer Chief Justice Rehnquist’s (Jonathan Pryce) withering questions.
Throughout, Maria drives Randy crazy by going back and forth over wanting to proceed or not, worried if she’ll outlive the Austrians’ delaying tactics, even as he pretty much goes broke. (She died in 2011 at the age of 94.) Their charged interplay, as in Philomena, is part of the film’s appeal. But every trip to Vienna besets her more and more with memories from childhood to her young adult years, as played by Tatiana Maslany, adding to the variety of her Orphan Black portrayals by speaking her parents’ native German.
Maria’s courtship and joyous wedding to factory heir and opera singer Fritz Altmann (Max Irons) are overshadowed by the attacks on Jews in the streets from mocking Nazi mobs and then drowned out by the cheers for Hitler’s takeover of the country in March 1938 when swastikas hang from every building. Next, the arrests and requisition of property begin. (Adele’s diamond necklace from the portrait is seen around Hermann Göring’s wife’s neck.) Her negative memories extend to a just-in-time escape out of the country that is tensely exciting.
As the arbitrations about the painting’s fate proceed, Ronald Lauder (Ben Miles in a cameo) plays a somewhat more helpful role than he was seen in the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the reclamation of Egon Schiele’s 1912 painting. The portrait of Maria’s aunt is now the centerpiece of an exhibition at his Neue Galerie of early 20th-century German and Austrian art and design in New York City.
Director Simon Curtis takes liberties with and simplifies what happened to real people to streamline an involving story, as in his 2011 debut My Week With Marilyn, compared to the fuller recounting and interviews in journalist Ann-Marie O’Connor’s The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. The book details Maria’s husband’s imprisonment in Dachau, her sister’s difficulties during the war, and other descendants’ discomfort with the settlement and the disposition of the family’s other Klimt portraits. Instead, the credits carefully cite the film as “based on the life stories of E. Randol Schoenberg and Maria Altmann,” with inspiration from Jane Chablani’s British documentary Stealing Klimt (2007), not available in the U.S.
Thanks to this film, the portrait is no longer an anonymous woman to a much wider audience, and will help Schoenberg gain support for and attention to his continuing legal efforts to help more families regain Nazi-looted art from international museum collections.