Woman in Gold
"She is the Mona Lisa of Austria. Do you think they will just let her go?"
That's the question posed by Maria Altmann, an aging Austrian living in Los Angeles who decides the time has come to stake a longshot legal claim on the crown jewel of her Jewish family's Nazi-pilfered legacy: the famed "Lady in Gold," a portrait of her beloved Aunt Adele painted by renowned Austrian artist Gustav Klimt.
The catalyst for her claim? Discovering letters in her deceased sister's house hinting that the painting was perhaps willed to her and her sister.
Young lawyer Randol "Randy" Schoenberg (the American grandson of another famous Austrian, composer Arnold Schoenberg) isn't particularly interested in the merits of Maria's tenuous contention. Until, that is, he learns the painting is worth an estimated $100 million.
Against all odds, this decidedly odd couple—a determined American upstart and a fiercely independent Austrian octogenarian—team up to take on the Austrian government. It's an ever-escalating legal showdown that bounces back and forth between Vienna and America, including a dramatic chapter involving the United States Supreme Court.
Along the way, Maria must face deeply buried fears of returning to the country she fled in terror nearly 60 years before. Randy, meanwhile, begins to discover and embrace his own Austrian-Jewish heritage more deeply than he ever has before.
Woman in Gold is set against the historical backdrop of what happened to Austrian Jews—both their lives and their property—when Hitler "annexed" the country in March 1938. Jewish businesses were shut down, the Jews themselves were shipped to concentration camps, and their possessions were confiscated by the Third Reich. Throughout the film, then, we see emotional and morally instructive flashbacks to Maria's story in the sad, somber days leading up to Hitler's arrival in her country.
Before those atrocities, Maria's family was at the center of Viennese culture. They were a loving, affectionate and artistic clan, with her father being an accomplished musician and collector of fine art. In her final encounter with her parents before she and her new husband flee Vienna, Maria hears her father relate the character strengths of their family. We worked hard, he says. We contributed to society. We belonged. "I'm proud of what we have done, and I'm proud of my children." Then he adds, "As you go, I ask you only one thing: Remember us."
Maria does remember. Over and over again, memories of the people and the land she was forced to leave behind overwhelm her. The memories are so strong, in fact, that they make it difficult for her to consider returning to Vienna when the time comes for her and Randy to do so. But Randy encourages her to face her past—and its accompanying hardships—and so she does. At one point, Maria tells Randy, "I have to do what I can to keep these memories alive. Because people forget, you see. Especially the young."
There's another reason for her pursuing the painting: justice. And that theme is also woven into the film. Randy, for his part, is initially motivated by the thought of procuring the multimillion-dollar painting for his client. But he slowly realizes that greed is a terrible, self-centered motivation. He also begins to identify with the plight of his Austrian forbears, and he breaks down and cries after visiting the Viennese Holocaust memorial. Eventually, Randy is motivated solely by justice in his dogged pursuit of returning the portrait of Adele to its rightful owner. He's creative and unwavering in his pursuit of that goal, even when Maria herself is willing to call it quits at several points.
Randy's wife, Pam, is initially uncertain about her husband's growing obsession with helping Maria. In the end, however, she gets behind him completely, even after Randy quits his job to devote himself to the legal complexities involved with their quest. Maria and Randy are joined in their crusade by a young investigative journalist named Hubertus Czernin. He helps them find important documents they need to prove Maria's legal right to the painting, and he helps them navigate Austria's byzantine art restitution laws as well.
While being painted, Adele shows cleavage, and the artist briefly touches the top of her chest. Pam's seen in a nightgown. There's talk of looking "sexy." We see Randy and his wife in bed together (though not in a sexual context).
Numerous conversations reference Jews being slaughtered by Nazis in concentration camps. Flashbacks show the Nazis roughly rounding up Jews in Vienna; one couple is yanked off a plane as they're about to board. A frantic foot chase culminates with a German soldier shooting at two Jews as they try to get away in a car.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word and one s-word. (The latter is a play on a name.) There are three misuses of God's name (once with "d--n"). We hear a use or two of "d--n" and "p---." Jews are called "scum."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Several scenes depict people drinking socially (beer, wine, champagne). Maria says she wants to buy duty-free cognac at the airport, and she orders a second round of drinks. A German soldier smokes.
Other Negative Elements
Movies based on historical events can sometimes feel anachronistic. They might be interesting and engaging, but not particularly relevant to the world we live in today.
Woman in Gold doesn't fall into that trap.
Not only is this John Grisham-esque courtroom drama an engaging David-vs.-Goliath tale, its poignant and painful recollection of the Holocaust feels like an important reminder at a very critical point in our history, a time when violent anti-Semitism is again on the rise across Europe. And Woman in Gold manages to make its hard-hitting points without delving into the kind of hard-core content that many other films chronicling European Jews' tragic plight under Hitler's murderous Third Reich deliver. So its reach can be more properly extended as it confronts us with a sobering reminder of what evil leaders and the regimes in their thrall are capable of if left unchecked.
In an interview with USA Today, actress Helen Mirren (who swaps her British accent for an Austrian one playing Maria) said of this theme in the film, "There's the line I added to the script: 'Because people forget, you know. Especially the young.' And it's true. We are losing the generation of people who had firsthand experience of [the Holocaust]. I think the pain and the trauma of it was so profound they couldn't speak about it for a long time, and it's only toward the end of their life they began to articulate what had happened to them, to remember it and live it again."
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann; Tatiana Maslany as Young Maria Altmann; Ryan Reynolds as Randol 'Randy' Schoenberg; Daniel Brühl as Hubertus Czernin; Katie Holmes as Pam; Max Irons as Fredrick 'Fritz' Altmann; Moritz Bleibtreu as Gustav Klimt; Antje Traue as Adele Bloch-Bauer
Simon Curtis ( )
April 1, 2015
July 7, 2015