Why the film Woman in Gold matters now more than ever

Written by Jane B

Once upon a time if you missed a film at the cinema you had to hope it would pop up on television or at an art house screening at some point. Now we can catch up whenever we want. And while we may forego the cinematic experience of the big screen we could end up seeing the film at a more apposite and thought-provoking time.

As a middle-aged German-speaking, half-Jewish woman with a History of Art degree, the 2015 film The Woman in Gold had, unsurprisingly, piqued my interest in a cinema trailer. It was about Maria Altmann, an Austrian-born Jewish-American woman who began attempts to reclaim a Gustav Klimt portrait of her aunt in the 1990s. I knew the painting – a trademark Klimt; a glittering, glinting, gilded mosaic-like extravaganza – from my student travels in Vienna where it had hung in some splendour in the Belvedere Collection. I had also seen it in New York a few years ago where it hangs in a gallery above a Viennese cafe complete with newspapers on rods and delicious Apple Strudel. So I knew her efforts had been successful (apologies for the spoiler) and had every intention of seeing it on the big screen when it was released in 2015.

Helen Mirren plays Maria Altmann, a chic, feisty Los Angeles boutique-owner who discovers correspondence between her recently deceased sister and the Austrian government discussing the return of artworks confiscated by the Nazis. Under particular discussion was the Klimt portrait of their childless aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, an iconic painting which the Austrians were reluctant to relinquish in spite of their lip service to the campaign of rightful art restitution. It had become a national treasure, the equivalent of the Mona Lisa to Austrians but Maria Altmann continued the campaign with the aid of a friend’s son, Randy Schoenberg, a struggling lawyer who also happened to be the grandson of the famous composer. Like Mrs Altmann his family was part of the cultured Jewish diaspora forced to flee Vienna with the rise of Nazism and the two of them travelled to Austria to see whether they could reclaim the painting.

It was the first time Maria Altmann had returned to Vienna since she had been forced to flee in the 1930s leaving her parents behind. Painful memories flooded back for her and the story was told with a series of flashbacks showing humiliating ordeals such as Jews scrubbing the streets with acid while onlookers jeered and the barbaric intrusion of SS officers in their magnificent apartment where the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer had pride of place among many fine art works and artefacts.

It is a gripping film and well worth seeing. It holds its place in the canon of what can only be called Holocaust-related films. There are many of these, from Hollywood offerings such as Sophie’s Choice and Schindler’s List and European creations such as the French Au Revoir les Enfants and the Italian film Life is Beautiful. Not surprisingly I have seen many of them. A plethora of them have emerged recently and they seemed to be a way of analysing an extraordinary period of history which was as inconceivable as say, the slave trade or child labour. As we view these films from our twenty-first century vantage point we are immersed in a different age and feel relieved that the world has changed. How could that possibly have happened, we ask ourselves with a frisson.

The events of 2016 took me by surprise as I suddenly realised that bigotry and xenophobia still lurk in the shadows and people can emerge from murky depths with unpalatable views and influence others. Many people who felt part of mainstream society must be feeling highly uneasy in post-Brexit Britain and Trump’s America as new decrees are introduced, mob violence proliferates and deportations begin. Suddenly I understood how Nazism took hold; by stealth at first, playing on fears and discrimination, then gathering momentum until it became part of an unstoppable force and warped ideology.

I missed the film Denial at the cinema earlier this year. It is also based on a true story and is about the Holocaust denier David Irving, played by Timothy Spall with Rachel Weisz as the American academic who challenged him. I will watch it at some stage but it will be with a growing sense of disquiet as there was a time when the audience would have been rooting for the courageous heroine and cheering the triumph of good over evil. Now you simply never know what is going through the minds of seemingly respectable, upright, rational people. Never has Pastor Niemoller’s poem “First they came” seemed more chilling or prescient.


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