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The Painting of Her Beloved Aunt

Elliot Gertel
July 22, 2015

by Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel

woman-in-gold-useJUST RELEASED on DVD, Woman in Gold, seamlessly directed by Simon Curtis and engagingly written by Alexi Kaye Campbell, is an absorbing, moving, and well-paced film about Maria Altmann, a Holocaust survivor who resolves to use every possible legal means to press the government of her native Vienna to return art seized by the Nazis from her parents and uncle and aunt. Shortly after her sister’s death, Maria discovers letters in a box dating to the late 1940s, when her sister first attempted to recover the family’s art collection.

Taking his cues from the wit and insight of the real-life Maria Altmann, writer Campbell has the film’s Maria (Helen Mirren) remark that she could not get her sister to move in with her until after the latter’s death, when Maria became custodian of the letter box. Instead of having the opportunity to argue with her sister in the close quarters of Maria’s tiny California bungalow, she must argue the family’s case to the world. Maria’s mantra, directed at the Austrian government and at all who will listen, is her core conviction: “If they admit to one thing, they have to admit it all.”

la-et-turan-woman-in-gold-20150401Like her character, a presence to be reckoned with, Helen Mirren conveys humor, dignity, and determination. Her Maria is both aristocratic and hard-working, with complexities and warmth that derive as much from the privilege and culture she knew as a child as from the loss and suffering that she was forced to endure — and from the new opportunities and bonds with which she and her late husband were blessed after their desperate machinations and sheer good fortune enabled their escape to America. Maria’s farewell to her doomed parents is especially heart-wrenching and memorable.

The main treasure that enchanted her in childhood is the famous portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer (Antje Traue) by cutting-edge artist Gustav Klimt. Through well-interwoven flashbacks we are told Maria's story as a child (Nellie Schilling) and as a young woman (Tatiana Maslany), her life milestones marked by Aunt Adele’s kindness, encouragement and reassurances — and then, after her young aunt’s death in 1925 from meningitis, by the painting itself. We witness the Nazis looting the artwork and her father’s Stradivarius cello. Understandably, Maria cannot forget photographs of the gold necklace, worn by her aunt in the painting, being flaunted at Nazi soirees by the wife of Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring.

WE LEARN SOMETHING of the culture of survivors, how they found support in siblings and spouses (when they were fortunate to be reunited with them) and with friends who had gone through similar ordeals. As it happened, Maria’s girlfriend of similar background has a lawyer son, Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), who also happens to have been the paternal grandson of renowned composer Arnold Schoenberg. As she resolves to retrieve the art, Maria recruits Randy to the cause. Reynolds plays Randy with requisite tentativeness and awkwardness, for Schoenberg, a young husband and father, is reluctant to rock the boat at his law firm or to complicate his home life, although his wife (Katie Holmes) does grow increasingly supportive in the matter. Given the realities of human nature, some greed is needed to bring Schoenberg to a higher level of commitment and perspective: When he learns that the paintings are worth more than one hundred million dollars, he sees dollar signs. He prods Maria to return with him to Vienna, though she has vowed never to do so. “Unlike Lot’s wife I never look back,” she says, disarming in her Torah references when the most Jewish aspect of a seemingly assimilated Jewish life is a hora-like dance at her wedding. (Then again, modern Zionism was bolstered by the memories and determination of a so-called “assimilated” Viennese Jew, Theodor Herzl, many decades before.)

Then there is Maria’s aggressive rigidity and relentlessness, which in time forces Randy to wade into the case as if she were not part of it — a tactic that goads her to come around, more than once. Randy also learns that suspending his livelihood can bring spiritual enrichment and professional rewards far greater than monetary benefits.

In Vienna, Randy and Maria will meet an Austrian journalist, Huburtus Czernin (Daniel Bruhl), who has his own reasons for crusading for justice. Czernin says that the painting of Maria’s aunt is nothing less than the “Mona Lisa of Austria,” and helps them to discover that, ironically, Aunt Adele had willed the painting to the very art gallery that benefited from the looting, although her husband, Ferdinand, was to keep the painting until his death, which took place twenty years after Adele's.

One of many telling ironies lost neither on Maria nor on the film’s audience is the Austrian government’s hiring of a Jewish firm, a rather cynical move that nonetheless has elements of poetic justice. Speaking about justice, the film guides us gently and easily through legal processes and terms and loopholes, from the United States Supreme Court to arbitration in Austria. Astoundingly, the Austrians return the paintings.

For Maria, it was never about the money. She decides that the painting be hung in Ronald Lauder’s museum, the Neue Galerie in New York, and she divides the vast sums that Lauder pays for it between art institutions and Jewish organizations that benefit Holocaust survivors. (The DVD version of Woman in Gold offers supplemental materials that update the film's story).

Woman in Gold should be kept on hand to instruct, hearten, and motivate viewers.

Elliot B. Gertel is a retired pulpit rabbi who has been film and TV critic for the National Jewish Post and Opinion for 35 years. He is the author of Over the Top Judaism and What Jews Know About Salvation.