Pure Justice


The film “Woman in Gold” is an interesting counterpoint to most World War II films I’ve seen. There are no concentration camps. There is very little onscreen violence. A wealthy and artistic Jewish family is put under house arrest, and their vast collection of art stolen from them and distributed to various supporters of Hitler, but most of them escape Austria before the Nazi party comes to power. The only deaths in the family that we hear of are apparently from natural causes.

And yet, I found their experience compelling.

“Woman in Gold” tells the story of Maria Altmann (played by Helen Mirren in the present and Tatiana Maslany in flashbacks), who fought a legal battle with the Austrian government in the early 2000s to win back five Klimt paintings that had been stolen from her family by the Nazis and housed in the Belvedere Museum in Vienna. The most famous of these paintings was “Woman in Gold,” a painting of her aunt, Adele Bloch Bauer. Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), grandson of the composer Arnold Schoenberg and a struggling lawyer, agrees to help her win her case, and finds himself drawn from interest in a case that could win him millions (the portrait of Adele alone was valued at over $100,000,000) into interest in justice for a woman who suffered under the Nazis.

Somehow, the lack of gore in this film makes the indignities—women in furs being forced to scrub the ground while crowds jeered, Orthodox Jewish men having their curls cut off, shopkeepers being forced to paint the word “Jew” over their walls—horrifying. When Randy sees the simple Holocaust memorial in Vienna, he is devastated; when the audience members see the simple injustices in Vienna fifty years earlier, we are similarly affected.

“Woman in Gold” is about justice, and that it was justice for the upper middle class makes the very nature of justice more apparent. Maria is not rich anymore, but she lives comfortably, running a high-end women’s clothing boutique. There is an emotional aspect to her desire to have the Klimt paintings returned—she loved her Aunt Adele. But she is not planning to have the picture displayed in her own house. In fact, she repeatedly offers to leave the painting in the Belvedere, provided it is acknowledged to be hers. Her cause is the cause of what is just, rather than what feels good or is emotionally satisfying—a point explicitly made in the film over and over.

This is a strength, and an unexpected one, given the degree to which the obsession with Occupy Wall Street and “the top 1%” still permeate our culture. It is easy to confuse justice and our feelings about what is fair, and this film did not try to color the former with the latter. It was irrelevant whether or not it was fair that Maria Altmann’s family owned rooms and rooms full of famous paintings and expensive musical instruments. It was irrelevant that most of Maria’s family escaped Austria unharmed with plenty of wealth left over. It was irrelevant that the painting of Adele had become a national symbol for the postwar Austrian people. It was taken unjustly, and had to be returned.

However, as noteworthy as a film about justice is, “Woman in Gold” has the defects of its virtues. For one thing, the characters do not always emotionally connect with the audience. Maria and Randy have an entertaining mother-and-son type relationship. Randy certainly grows as a person through his time spent with her. And the story of Maria’s escape from Austria is exciting. (I certainly cried more than once.) But in the end, it is still hard to know who the characters really are.

There is a scene where Randy impulsively goes to a Schoenberg concert. He seems rapt. Is it because he’s a sensitive soul who has always enjoyed his grandfather’s music? Or is this an epiphany for him? It’s very hard to know what he is feeling at any given time.

And the characters secondary to Maria and Randy are completely forgettable. Randy’s wife (Katie Holmes) and the investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl) are blank personalities who only fulfill their jobs of, respectively, providing babies for Randy to not make money to support, and providing access to secret document archives. There are moments meant to humanize everyone, but they all fall flat.

There were many episodes that fell flat, as well. For example, there are several court scenes, including a scene at the Supreme Court. Each one seems to be incredibly important until it turns out to be only the first step in a series of cases, or, in one instance, is rendered irrelevant five minutes later. I cannot speak to the accuracy of the story, because I have not read much about the case, but the sense I got was that the filmmakers were were trying to tell the story accurately, and allowing artistic integrity to suffer from it.

Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed and would recommend “Woman in Gold.” I found it interesting as a story about history, law, and art restitution. It was entertaining as a vehicle for Helen Mirren. It was satisfying as a story about justice. And it also raised some interesting questions about the portrayal of justice in film. While a genuine understanding of justice is important, and we all benefit from works of art that demonstrate this, how divorced from emotion can one make such portrayals while still creating something effective? In an era where justice struggles to detach itself from emotionalism, these are questions we need to be asking.

Image copyright The Weinstein Company. “Woman in Gold” is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and brief strong language.

Kaitlyn Elisabet Bonsell would like to take this opportunity to say something nice about Arthur the Labradoodle, but after the movie he chased a large spider right up to the elliptical she was on and left it there.

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