Monday, 27 July 2015

Woman in Gold

Yesterday we went to see the film called Woman in Gold. It is about Maria Altmann, a woman whose family thought that they were Austrians but discovered that, as far as the majority of Austrians were concerned, they were Jews. As a result of this terrible misunderstanding, they were robbed, driven from their home and deprived of all rights and property.

Maria Altmann is not a fictional character but a real person. When she discovered, following her sister's death, that the Nazis had stolen a portrait of her beloved aunt, painted by Klimt, which ever since had hung in the Belvedere Art Gallery in Vienna, she decided to ask for it back. The film tells the story of what happened next.

The Austrian arts ministry and the authorities supposedly in charge of restitution of property stolen by the Nazis obstructed Altmann at every turn. They are portrayed as pantomime villains, particularly at a certain point when they are sitting in a row in a courtroom and the camera pans on their absurdly wicked expressions. This is a bit laughable, but it is hard to see how else they could have been presented, given the way they actually behaved throughout the case - and, sad to say, some Viennese do have a disturbing way of presenting themselves as caricatures - of selfishness, at the very least.

The case is balanced in the film by the fact that Altmann is helped by other Austrians, who are all too well aware that their country carried out terrible injustices and wish to make amends. The contemporary story is intercut with scenes that recreate the life of Altmann's family before the Nazis took over. These reminded me very much of the writings of George Clare in a book called Last Waltz in Vienna, which I recommend to anyone interested in trying to understand what happened to Jewish families in Vienna at the time of the Anschluss. The Altmann family scenes are very affecting, and the shots of Vienna during the first days of the Anschluss bring that time all too vividly to life.

The script is occasionally a tiny bit clunky, but the acting is very good - Helen Mirren seems to be channelling Peggy Ashcroft's wonderful performance in Caught on a Train in the opening scenes. She is excellent - even in the first scene, at her sister's funeral, she brilliantly conveys fine emotional adjustments with facial expression alone. The rest of the cast are also very good, especially the man who plays the young Maria's father. The backdrop of Vienna is, as always, beautiful, although I did wonder, at one point, whether it was likely that, while filling in the time during a short adjournment in a court case in the centre of town, the characters would really have decided to go all the way out to the Prater, or whether their presence there might have been staged more for cinematic than authentic reasons.

 Interestingly, there seems to be a wide divergence between the view of audiences, of whom, according to the Rotten Tomatoes site, 82% liked the film and the critics, of whom only 34 % did. The critic of the UK Telegraph said of the film:
"...opportunities are missed here to explore the conundrum, controversy and morality of the art restitution struggle"
and many of his colleagues seem to agree that the film doesn't provide enough debate about issues to do with Austria's past wrongs and what is meant by ownership when it comes to art. One critic even tries to argue that it is doubtful whether anyone can actually "own" a painting.

This stuff strikes me as fairly decadent relativism, which all too easily leads to arguments about how we can't really condemn Hitler because he had an unhappy childhood and how Nazi treatment of Jews has to be understood in the context of the time - or something.

Such arguments are rubbish. Nuance has its place but, when humans have behaved with systematic and widespread cruelty against other humans, it is important that their wrongdoing is acknowledged, without excuses. These things should not be forgotten or explained away. They need to be remembered, because humanity is often capable of being completely depraved, and we all need to be vigilant, if we are to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

Anyway, we really enjoyed the film. It is a good yarn, with interesting central characters. It is about an art work, but it is not an 'arthouse' movie. Since it never aspired to be that, it seems extremely unfair to attack it for its failings as one.


Surprisingly, after many twists and turns the painting was returned to Altmann. Although the movie does not tell us this in its main story arc, in the credits it explains that she subsequently sold it, with a stipulation that it be always on display and available to the public in a New York gallery. Some people attacked her for that, arguing her fight for restitution had been all about money. These critics entirely and utterly miss the point, I reckon. At a time when freedom was taken away from her and her family, their belongings were stolen. Mrs Altmann had no duty to the belongings. They were things that her family had bought, to do with as they chose. The case was not about who was the best custodian of a valuable piece of art; the case was about returning things that had been stolen. The painting always belonged to Altmann and her family. Indeed, had they not commissioned it and paid for it, it would not exist today. The ultimate justice was not merely to let her have it back, conditional on her understanding how lucky she was to have it; the ultimate justice lay in acknowledging that the thing was hers all along and thattherefore she had a right to do with it whatever she liked.

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