Woman in Gold (2015): Then and Now

Gustav Klimt (1862 – 1918) was an Austrian Symbolist painter and one of the most prominent members of the Vienna Art Nouveau (Vienna Secession) movement. His major works include paintings, murals, sketches, and other art objects, but the most recognizable piece probably is the painting “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (1907), commonly known as “The Woman in Gold”.

The painting measures 54″ x 54″, oil, silver and gold on canvas, a highly embellished work reflecting the elegant lady active in the Viennese art circle, patron and muse of Klimt’s, Adele Bloch-Bauer. Adele was married to Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, an Austrian Jewish industrialist who commissioned Klimt to do the two portraits of his wife. It had been hanging in his home until seized by the Nazis.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I
Source: Wikipedia

After the war, the famous painting had been hanging in Austria’s federal art museum, the Galerie Belvedere, as a national treasure, until a near eight-year legal battle finally decided its restitution back to the hands of Adele and Ferdinand’s niece, Maria Altmann, who had escaped to the United States before the War broke out. The long legal fight to gain back the painting’s rightful ownership is the focus of this movie.

Arts looted by the Nazis have their screen time twice in the past year, first The Monuments Men, and now Woman in gold. Important subject but unfortunately both films fall short of cinematic rendering. Director Simon Curtis’s handling in Woman in Gold emits less glimmer than his previous My Week with Marilyn.

Helen Mirren delivers a fine performance as the determined yet conflicting Altmann, who, on the one hand, wants to see justice done in the restitution of her family heirloom but reluctant to re-open a traumatic chapter of her life and return to Austria for the case. She remembers her Aunt Adele well, with some endearing and awestruck moments beholding her beauty. The film handles the shifting between the past and present quite well. It is heart wrenching for a daughter to have to make a hasty escape from her home, leaving her parents behind as the Nazis take over the country.

The David and Goliath legal battle is handled by a young and inexperienced Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg. Yes, that’s the grandson of the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, who had escaped to the U.S. in time to avoid the Holocaust, just like Altmann. In 2004, the young lawyer argues his case Republic of Austria v. Altmann in the U.S. Supreme Court, and in January, 2006, heads over to Austria to present his arguments in front of a panel for a binding arbitration. An emotional Altmann sits beside Schoenberg as they hear the decision announced by the panel of three Austrian judges ruling in their favour.

The choice of Ryan Reynolds as Randol Schoenberg looks like a miscast. Something’s missing… But then again, it could be the screenplay, maybe infusing more cinematic moments, or cutting some banal scenes and dialogues would help. Katie Holmes who plays Randol’s wife and Daniel Brühl (excellent in Rush, 2013) as a helpful journalist are incidentals. I can understand condensing the almost decade-long legal story into 109 minutes with an ending that is already known is itself a difficult feat. So all the more we need a more effective screenplay.

However, for someone who did not know about the details of this piece of art history, the movie still captured my attention. I watched it like a documentary. Not knowing the details of this legal case, I found the movie informative in taking me through the obstacles, albeit in synopsis format and simplification.

The beginning is probably one of the most appealing sequence of the whole movie, and that’s a close up on the technique the painter Klimt uses on his painting, meticulously forming a gold leaf and pasting it on his work in progress. Unfortunately, the scene is way too short to allow us to savour. This may well be the only artistic spot a viewer will get.

In a post-script text, we learn that Altmann sold “The Woman in Gold” to Ronald Lauder for $135 million in 2006, at the time the highest purchase price on record for a painting. Those living in or visiting New York City now have a chance to see the current exhibition at the Neue Galerie – opened by Lauder in 2001 – “Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer: The Woman in Gold”, April 2 – Sept. 7, 2015.

In August last year, Lauder, as President of the World Jewish Congress, wrote a moving op-ed for the NYT about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Africa. He ends with this: “The Jewish people understand all too well what can happen when the world is silent. This campaign of death must be stopped.”

It’s all about speaking out. That’s what makes this movie important. I can’t help but imagine though: what if it were Klimt who made it…

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples