It all starts with a sheet of gold leaf. Gustav Klimt’s hand deftly chops and applies the thin expensive metal, while telling his model, the young and beautiful Adele Bloch-Bauer to concentrate. Bloch is the enigmatic subject of Klimt’s famous portrait previously in the Belvedere in Vienna, and her portrait is the subject of the new film, Woman in Gold. That crisp opening sequence, which contrasts the cold, cool expensive metal with its complex human subject, encapsulates nicely the message of a film that fundamentally asks about the value of art.
Woman in Gold stars Helen Mirren in the true story of Maria Altmann, the émigré Austrian Jew who discovers among her dead sister’s papers in California the information that she might have legal claim to Klimt’s portrait of her Aunt Adele, which was taken by the Nazis in 1938. Ryan Reynolds plays lawyer Randy Schoenberg – the harassed son of her friend, and grandson of the famous composer – who, against his better judgement, helps her to investigate her claim and rapidly becomes obsessed.
In the trip to Vienna that shapes the film, Altmann and Schoenberg discover two things. Firstly, they find Adele’s will in the archives, which left the portrait to the Belvedere; but also that it is invalid, and therefore that the Austrian government’s claim to ownership is contestable. Secondly, and more importantly, Altmann revisits some of the places that she remembers from 1930s Vienna on the eve of Anschluss, culminating in a visit to pay her respects at the Holocaust memorial. Here, Schoenberg finally reconnects with his Austrian heritage, breaks down in tears, and takes on board the painting’s tragic human story. This is what, from then on, really propels the compulsion to win back The Woman in Gold, irrespective of the immense monetary value that originally inspired him.
The 20th-century story of Altmann and Schoenberg’s fight for restitution of the painting (along with several others) is played out across the American legal system and an Austrian arbitration. It is intercut with the story of Altmann’s life just prior to fleeing Vienna for California, through her joyous wedding in the family’s richly appointed home, to the couple’s terrified flight from the Nazis, complete with nail-biting chase through the railway station. But it is not until the moment when the Austrian arbitration committee decide that the paintings should be restored to Altmann, that we witness the central moment of the Vienna story. That is the heart-wrenching scene in which she bids her Jewish parents goodbye in the home that is being rapidly stripped of its treasures by the Nazis.
At that moment, Altmann, who has been a strong, humorous and very Teutonic character compared to Schoenberg’s impulsive American, breaks down saying simply ‘It doesn’t make it better’. No matter the victory of recovering her beloved aunt, in portrait form, from the Austrian government – which the film presents throughout as an unsympathetic and greedy guardian of the paintings – it does not heal the wound of having abandoned her parents in Nazi hands.
Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I is now on display at the Neue Gallery in New York, and its counterpart Adele Bloch-Bauer II is on loan to MoMA. Reunited with the paintings, Altmann chose to take them back to America, disgusted at the Austrian government’s attitude, despite her early offer to leave them at the Belvedere in return for an acknowledgement of guilt. Her aunt will leave Austria for a new life, just as she was forced to, Altmann explains in the film. Thus the portrait now exists in the context of German and Austrian art in America, in a collection that consciously addresses issues of provenance and restitution. Aunt Adele’s soft features are further refracted through the lens of the American art world and of Hollywood, as much as through Klimt’s golden squares.