Today I saw a screening of Woman in Gold, a story within a story about the Nazi confiscation of artworks generally, of their victimization of one particular family, and then the restitution of that art. Having lived in Vienna during the late 70s, having returned many times subsequently, and then as a visitor to New York, I have viewed the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer many times. I knew something of the legal battle regarding the return of the painting to its rightful owner, Maria Altman. But it was wonderful to see it dramatized, however incompletely.
The film shifts between the original painting of the portrait (Klimt did not receive a traditional education at the Kunstakademie, but studied in the School of Arts and Crafts because of his more plebeian decent as the son of a silver- and goldsmith), the life of the wealthy family that commissioned it, their treatment and flight from the Nazis, and then the fight for reclamation. It brings the seamless story of Nazi oppression home, how it penetrated all of Jewish life. The Austrians, even after the war, don’t come out well in this story, and they don’t deserve to, much as I love their country and know that some of them performed heroic acts to save the persecuted.
Helen Mirren plays her role well, of course. The newspapers have been quite critical of Ryan Reynolds’s performance, and indeed I would not have cast him to play Arnold Schoeberg’s grandson. But he’s better than The Times review suggests. All in all, this film glows and also proves timely: the heirs of Erich Lederer are now pressing the Austrian government for return of perhaps Klimt’s greatest work of art, the magnificent Beethoven Frieze. Let’s hope in this instance that Austrian officials will follow a less Byzantine course to justice than they offered to Maria Altman.