14 April 2015

A Woman in Gold, a film by Simon Curtis

by Marc Masurovsky

Let’s be clear about one thing. I went to see this film not expecting much, in the wake of that disaster called “Monuments Men.” So, with some trepidation, I chose to view “A Woman in Gold” with Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds. Ms. Mirren plays the role of Maria Altmann, the niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who may have been one of Gustav Klimt’s flings in pre-1914 Vienna, so popular was he with the girls.

Ryan Reynolds plays a meek version of the formidable E. Randol Schoenberg whose wits, ingenuity and tenacity, enabled him to prevail over an intemperate, obstreperous Austrian government, unwilling by principle to return what was not theirs, namely the Klimt paintings removed by Nazi officials from the luxurious apartments of the Bloch-Bauer family. It pays to read documents and interpret them wisely, logically, and critically, which is what Mr. Schoenberg did with the help of Ms. Altmann and Mr. Czernin, the intrepid Viennese journalist who blew the top off Austrian deceit and denial relative to the government’s role since 1945 in blocking restitution claims in order to profit from wartime thefts of Jewish property. By sticking to the facts, he correctly pointed out that Adele Bloch-Bauer’s wish to donate the paintings to the Belvedere Museum in Vienna after Mr. Bloch-Bauer’s death was just that—a wish—The paintings were not hers, they were Mr. Bloch-Bauer’s. Moreover, the paintings were stolen and transferred BEFORE Mr. Bloch-Bauer’s death.
Randol Schoenberg
Maria Altmann

So, a crime had been committed and the Austrian government built a defense on a fiction. Mr. Schoenberg's realization that the Austrian government profited from the image of Ms. Altmann's property to make money in the United States sealed the legal strategy that took them straight to the US Supreme Court.

I saw the film with several attorneys who are steeped in art restitution matters, but who represent “average” claimants whose lost art objects do not even come close in value to the ethereal and irrational level of 100 plus million dollars which was ascribed to “Adele Bloch Bauer” back in the early years of the 21st century.

I surprised myself and left the theater not as upset as one of my colleagues who had a viscerally negative reaction. In his view, the film made it seem as if only the wealthiest Jewish families were the victims of Nazi plunder. There is something to be said about this criticism. Less than one per cent of all cultural items stolen by the Nazis and their allies have attained values coming close but not equaling that of the Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer”. Fewer than 20 per cent of all cultural items plundered between 1933 and 1945 were ever returned to their rightful owners, most of them valued in today’s hypertrophied art market at less than 100,000 dollars.

Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds in character
Aside from this, the film conveys two powerful messages rendered more poignant by Helen Mirren’s stature and presence as an irascible yet warm and proud Maria Altmann.

-art restitution is about personal loss, it takes an emotional toll on the victims, and the objects that were illegally misappropriated by Nazi agents and their collaborators hold more than financial value. They pack memories of lost lives, missing relatives, reminiscences of places from which they were driven away by the New Order imposed by the Third Reich. Restitution is a personal, gut-wrenching matter for most claimants.

-the only way to win a restitution battle is to go for broke. Your fight is made more difficult because of the prejudice, indifference, and condescension displayed by the current possessors whether private or public from whom the claimants seek some measure of justice. So, the message of the movie is: never give up even if you don’t think that you can prevail, because by taking on those very authorities which have profited from your loss, you set an example for others.

The only problem with the “go for broke” strategy is that few people can afford it. If only there were organizations or institutions that could advocate on behalf of claimants with few resources at their disposal, the world would be a different place.

But unfortunately, reality is starkly different. Ms. Altmann was fortunate enough to be the rightful owner of some of the most expensive paintings in the world and represented by an extremely creative and persistent young lawyer who achieved the impossible—restitution.

The film’s weaknesses stem from the caricaturing of those evil Austrians into a monolithic group of crypto-antisemites with nothing better to do than to display collective arrogance against (wealthy) Jews who lost their property and seek its return. Elisabeth Gehrer, the minister of culture at the time of the Altmann case and also-let’s not forget—the case involving the Leopold Museum against the heirs to Schiele’s “Portrait of Wally” was portrayed as an inflexible figure. But she facilitated the passage of the only federal restitution law that exists in this world of ours. It is not the Altmann case that broke the ice in Austria. The Wally case did. So, somewhere, Ms. Gehrer’s heart was bent on reforming the Austrian zeitgeist when it came to righting the wrongs of the past even if in small doses.

The film blindsided the late Hubertus Czernin, the maverick Viennese journalist who broke open the dams of denial and deceit relative to the Austrian’s government exploitation of Jewish-owned properties, many of which have adorned the walls of Austrian museums. His persistence earned him the opprobrium of Austrian government officials—a compliment, one might add—and his reporting softened public opinion as well as that of the Austrian restitution authorities. There is a “johnny come lately” acknowledgment by Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) in thanking Hubertus right after Ms. Altmann gets the okay to recover her paintings.

The use of syrupy flashbacks to denote Maria Altmann's longing for the life and loved ones that she lost  became grating after the fifth time. There are other ways of conveying loss and nostalgia. We'll leave it at that.

Last but not least, it is difficult to capture all the complexities tied to a case which goes all the way to the Supreme Court.  The oversimplifications left us panting for more but that's ok, as long as the pathos continued to stir us up.

One should thank the film’s screenwriter for having given Ms. Altmann some stirring lines which she might or might not have spoken in real life, but they helped humanize her as a claimant whose heart was broken by Austrian Nazis; it is not clear whether the return of the paintings ever helped to mend her wounds. How can one forget the loss of one’s parents? The restitution must have helped somewhat. Hard to tell.

The Bloch-Bauers as well as other members of Austria’s Jewish elite were just that—members of an elite that had all the trappings of an informal aristocracy. They had their counterparts all across Europe. The Nazis vied for their property and massacred them where they could. Most were able to flee.

However, the vast majority of Jewish victims of Nazism were middle-class, working class, or farmers, or peddlers, ill-fed intellectuals and artists, members of orthodox and Hasidic communities, scattered across Europe. Every object that they lost, regardless of its esthetic or pecuniary value, contains a part of their soul and constitutes a direct link to the communities that Nazism tried to destroy and in many instances succeeded in doing so. These victims had few advocates after 1945 and today they have even less and will never recover their lost properties.

In the end as in the beginning, a loss is a loss, no matter how wealthy or poor you are. And restitution is the only form of justice that can help mend the wounds of persecution and plunder.

As Maria Altmann rightfully put it, it is about justice.