The first thing you have to get over is Helen Mirren speaking English with a German accent. Actually, she’s pretty convincing – and if she didn’t have such a thick acting resume, it would be easier to pretend that she’s actually someone else, in this case, Maria Altmann (yes, a “real person”) who died in 2011 at age 94.
Maria was born in Vienna in 1916. Not a good era to be born a Jew in Europe. Her family was quite cultured: her father a professional cellist, her uncle a celebrated painter. Art and music were an important part of her life growing up, and it was no surprise to her family at all that she became engaged to an opera singer who sang her a lovely aria on the occasion of the public engagement announcement. She’s a pretty girl, a bit shy, but with quiet, strong convictions. (The younger Maria is played winsomely by Tatiana Maslany.) Maria remembers fondly a beautiful aunt, who died young, but was the subject of her artist husband’s dramatic painting entitled “Woman In Gold.” It hung proudly in their living room, a fond remembrance of a lovely person, and, sadly, a carefree era soon to be a bygone.
Yes, the Nazis were coming. With the stiff salutes and imperious ways, inciting the populace to a patriotic fervor that would result in aggressive territory takeovers. Then, alas, entire world would be plunged into a war bearing some 50 million casualties, among them the 6 million slaughtered in Europe for no reason other than being Jewish.
Maria barely manages to escape. Her parents are too slow to see the imminent danger in time to save themselves, assuming that surely the entire country would not descend into the madness of the Nazis (though, of course, it did).
But now that Maria is an octogenarian widow living in California, she doesn’t think so much about those bygone days. She has a little dress shop. She lives simply and quietly. She’s never gone back to Austria; most of her family perished there, and the memories are just too painful. She never had children, so her work is all she has and she’s determined to keep the little boutique open as long as she is able.
A family friend, also long-since immigrated, mentions to Maria that apparently the painting entitled “Woman In Gold” is quite celebrated back in Austria, Now that they’ve officially established a governmental commission to restore art work that was stolen by the Nazis to its rightful owners, wouldn’t Maria want to inquire about that? The friend’s son is a lawyer; why don’t you ask him to help?
The son, Randal Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds, remarkably understated) is indeed a lawyer, but appears to be at professional loose ends at the moment: He quit his prestigious job in the big firm to start his own practice, which didn’t go so well. And now he literally has nothing better to do than to chase after the genealogy of this now-famous painting. What he finds excites him with the possibilities. He thinks he can actually successfully sue to return the beloved painting to Maria.
There’s pushback, of course. The Austrian museum, run by the government, doesn’t want to either admit culpability or lose the prestigious painting, now an iconic representation of an entire artistic era. They fight Schoenberg every step of the way, but that makes Maria even more determined to reclaim something of what was taken away from all of them during that horrible time in Austria’s history. Of course Maria is prepared for the insidious racism that still exists there, but Schoenberg isn’t. They enlist the help of a local social activist who discovered that his father was a Nazi and has been dealing with his own guilt by association by trying to assist people like Maria Altmann. Soon the simple rightness and justice of her cause begins to transcend them all.
“Woman In Gold” is a fascinating re-visit into an era that is so horrific that it can hardly be believed: Nazi marches and rallies; jackbooted soldiers arrogantly harassing its own populace; a whole culture descending into an Aryan Reign of Terror, that is, ironically, led by a disaffected Austrian (a failed art student, no less). The past and the present intersect both in the vivid memory of Maria Altmann and the seared historic consciousness of the viewer.
Questions for discussion:
- To whom do art works belong? Can, or should, every artwork stolen by the Nazis be returned to the descendants of the “original” owner?
- What about, for example, the great works of Egyptian antiquity residing in the British Museum? Are they also to be returned to Egypt? Should all Picassos reside at The Prado in Madrid?
- Can Nazism happen again? Could an Adolph Hitler happen again? What would be the contributing circumstances? What would prevent them?
Ronald P. Salfen is the supply pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Kaufman, Texas.