Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Woman in Gold

Monday, I did something I seldom really do - take the day off. The morning was spent at the Verizon store upgrading to a new iPhone. After that, I was ready to do something more meaningful and hopefully much more satisfying. So I went to the movies to see the new Helen Mirren-Ryan Reynolds film, Woman in Gold, based on the true story of Maria Altmann, an elderly Austria-Jewish refugee from the Holocaust and her young lawyer, Randy Schoenberg, and their ultimately successful fight with the Austrian authorities to reclaim Gustav Klimt's famed portrait of Maria's aunt, Adele Bloch-Buaer,  the famous "Woman in Gold," confiscated by the Nazis from Maria's childhood Viennese apartment and for decades displayed in Vienna's Belvedere Palace.

The film follows the improbable story of Maria's quest, her enlisting of the young Schoenberg (grandson of the composer) to success in the U.S. Supreme Court and final success at arbitration in Vienna. Interweaved with that 21st-century story are flashbacks to Maria's pre-war life in a well-to-do highly cultured Viennese Jewish family and tragic changes visited upon them by the Anschluss. The pre-war family scenes are particularly poignant, as they illustrate the assimilated lifestyle of so many German and Austrian Jewish families and their commitment to a certain kind of culture, what in German would be called Bildung, a way of life of which both Maria's father's cello-playing and the painting itself serve as symbols.

Mirren and Reynolds play their parts well and kept me engaged in the evolution of their characters. The scenes of modern Vienna made me nostalgic for my two visits to that city - the first as a college sophomore studying German in the very different, still post-war world of 1970.

But more important than any of that, in a very human way which gets beyond narrow polemics, the film recalls the trauma of the war and the Holocaust and addresses the controverted question of Austria's post-war self-identity as primarily victim rather than actual accomplice. These are all important issues, which, with the passing of the World War II generation, no longer engage the contemporary world, but, which for all sorts of reasons, should not be allowed to be simply forgotten.

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