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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

MB reviews "Woman in Gold".

Links A. Negative review of "Woman in Gold".
          B. Positive review of "Woman in Gold".

Because I left this film debating my own opinion, I decided to provide in the links, a review supporting "Woman in Gold", and a review criticizing the film.  "Woman in Gold" is the story of an elderly Austrian lady living in Los Angeles, who has a potentially legitimate claim to ownership of one of the world's most treasured paintings: Gustav Klimt's "Woman in Gold".
Gustav Kimt's Painting
The lady in question, Maria Bloch-Altmann, who is Jewish, was forced to flee Vienna in March, 1938, after the German Army crossed the border and occupied Austria unopposed.  The majority of her wealthy, established, and artistic Viennese family, including her parents, did not escape and died in Nazi concentration camps.  After removing Maria's family, the Nazi's looted their home, and many prized objets d'art, including a number of famous paintings, found their way to Germany.  After the war, some of the Bloch family paintings, the ones by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, ended up on display at the Belvedere Museum in Vienna.  After the death of her sister, Maria decides that its time to regain custody of her family's paintings, and through an Austrian-American friend, finds a young lawyer who ends up being just the right advocate for the job (the attorney is also an Austrian-American Jew, although the film makes it obvious that he is not observant).  The viewer is taken on a trip through the legal proceedings, interspersed with Maria's flashbacks of her family and the events leading up to her departure from Austria.

I do recommend this movie, if only because of Helen Mirren.  She, like Meryl Streep, has this uncanny gift to create accents that are hard to distinguish from the those of native speakers.  Every moment that Mirren is on the screen was a comfort for me.  I totally bought into the idea that she was an elderly Austrian Jew, whose family was murdered in the Holocaust, and who was determined to regain some of her rightful possessions.  It was a bit more of a stretch with Ryan Reynolds as the attorney, although he certainly wasn't bad in the role.  I suppose it's that I've seen him in so many movies of a different flavor that it is now difficult to imagine him in something of this sort.  Katie Holmes, who plays Reynold's wife, was completely wasted in her role.  At first she seemed angry that her husband was taking a detour from his career to help this old woman, then, without any explanation, she's totally on board, picking out the clothes he should wear in court when he is NOT at her bedside for the birth of their second child.  But all of these issues are just details.  The real problem with this film is in its history.

In 1938, Hitler ordered his army to cross the border into Austria.  He gambled that the Austrian Army would not fight, and he was correct.  The next morning, the Austrian authorities handed over control of the country to the Germans, and the German Army had an impromptu parade down the Ringstrasse in Vienna.  Actually, Hitler himself was on his way, and would be leading his own parade before the day was over.  Many Viennese turned out to welcome the Germans, and the now-famous 8 mm films show the sidewalks full of cheering Austrians, waving little swastika flags.  The simple truth is that many Austrians sympathized with the Nazis.  Austria was on the same losing side in the First World War, alongside Germany.  Post-war, Austria suffered almost as bad as Germany, although economically, Austria was able to rebound sooner.  The average Austrian in 1938 looked north to Germany and saw the booming economy, the growing job market, the rebuilt army, and the sense of national pride.  It's no wonder that the Germans were welcomed by so many Austrians.  The film makes great hay out of Austrians cheering for the Nazis, not once taking into account that Vienna was only one city, and that a large percentage of Austrians were proud of their independence, and didn't want to become a piece of Germany.  Many Austrians continued to be loyal to the Habsburg pretender living in exile in Spain.  After watching this movie, you couldn't be blamed for believing that every non-Jewish Austrian in Austria supported the Nazis, which was simply not the case.

The Jewish community in Austria was decimated by the Holocaust.  The Nazi's enacted the same exact procedures in Austria that had proven so effective in Germany.  Blame the Jews for the ills of the world, humiliate them publicly, confiscate all their possessions, and in the end, ship them off to "relocation camps".  In the film, the average Austrian on the street was complicit in the beating and humiliation of Jewish Austrians.  When Jews were trying to escape or hide from the Gestapo, the bad guys had no better friends than the Austrian people, who would gladly point out the Jew's hiding places. There is no doubt that a number of Austrians joined the Nazi movement and participated in the unthinkable atrocities committed against Austrian Jews.  Too many were involved.  However,  Austria was not Germany.  The Austrian people did not rise up in an anti-Semitic rage, to burn synagogues and murder rabbis.  In fact, before the Anschluss (the German term meaning union or connection, used to describe the unification of Germany and Austria) occurred, there were rarely episodes of anti-Jewish sentiment, although anti-Semitism existed in every European city (and still does).  But as the movie progressed, I continued to look (in vain) for a non-Jewish Austrian: one who wasn't a monster.  It's possible that the family friend who gave Maria and her husband a car-ride to the airport in Vienna is an Austrian hero.  Then again, he may have been Jewish.

I have spent a good deal of time in Austria and I know Austrians who are like family to me.  I accept that I'm biased.  At the same time, I pride myself on being honest.  I have studied Austrian history in depth, and there is a reason why so many great Jewish minds flourished in Vienna, not to mention the Jewish musicians and the brilliant men of medicine.  The Jewish community was an integral part of Austria, and its destruction at the hands of the Nazis left a hole that will never be filled.  Regarding the paintings (including the one that lends its name to the movie), some Austrian politicians and bureaucrats wanted the works of art to stay in Austria because the artist was Austrian.  It was not anti-Semitism that encouraged the Austrian government to contest Maria Bloch-Altmann's efforts, it was a sense of national pride.  So much Austrian art was looted by the Nazis, and most will never make its way back to Austria.  This explains the importance of the paintings.  That said, I also understand the importance in the eyes of Ms. Altmann, who doesn't see the lines of Austrian school kids waiting to see the "Woman in Gold"; she sees Nazi storm troopers taking her family's possessions and loading them onto trucks to be driven to Germany.

In the end, I wanted very much to like this film.  But I think it's overt message, delivering a blanket indictment against all Austrians alive in 1938, is a tragedy in itself.  We've reached a point in the history of our society and culture, in which a falsehood can be accepted as truth, especially in support of "guilt by association".  The Germans and Austrians fought as allies in the first Great War, and Austria allowed itself to be annexed by Germany just before the commencement of the second Great War…….certainly enough evidence to be "guilty by association", and to justify a bit of artistic lying, I mean license.  The greatest tragedy is that in the rush to simplify the causes and forces behind history, to ignore the complexities of the economics, the national defense, and the national self-pride that was also at stake, in doing that we may doom ourselves to be candidates for repeating the same mistakes again.

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